Public speaking is fun for me, but for most people, giving a speech or presentation is the highway to the danger zone. It doesn't have to be that way. But even the most seasoned public speakers can be at risk if they don't know how to recognize the danger signals.
Here are 5 warning signs that your presentation is in danger.
You encounter continual silence from the audience. You might as well be speaking to a wall when the audience is not responsive. Sometimes, the reason for silence is the facilitator isn't giving enough time for a response. But if you're pausing long enough, it could mean that they don't understand your questions or exercises. Or it could be a sign of hostility. If the group doesn't warm up, check in with them. Humor can help. When one public speaker was met with total silence, he told the audience, "This means "yes", and this means "no". He simultaneously demonstrated a nod and a head shake. They laughed and this eased the tension. Be sure that your questions and instructions are clear. And that you expect participation.
Audience members are disengaged. You'll know you lost your audience when they're texting, side-talking, or getting up to leave. The remedy is to have content that is so interesting that they look up from their phones. Yes, even millennials will make eye contact if it's something that interests them. Adult learners want control over their learning. Stop and ask a provocative question. Start a discussion. People love to share opinions. This can be done even in a keynote. Ask for a show of hands. Use polling software. The best way to get engagement is to involve them.
Body language is closed. This is a clear signal that the audience is not receptive. It could be that their management sent them to hear you speak and they resent being there. They may not see the value. In this case, position the topic so that it addresses their self interests. Talk about what's in it for them and how your topic will enrich their skills or careers. Closed body language could also mean there was a negative event in the company. If you suspect something might be up, address it and give them a few moments to vent. When I first started as a public speaker, I did career seminars for outplaced employees. The last thing they wanted was to write a resume. They were upset. To reduce the negativity or fear in the room, allow the audience to vent. Listen, empathize and move on.
The same question continues to be asked. When a questioner or an audience gets stuck on an issue, your presentation can easily go down a rabbit hole and derail. Determine the reason for the repetitive question. It could mean your communication is too confusing or your presentation topic is too complex. If lack of understanding is the reason, regroup, and simplify the content. Use a flip chart or whiteboard to draw a diagram. Use an analogy to make it clear. If you feel badgered, it may be the questioner is trying to trap you. Just as a reporter will ask the same question three times or three different ways to get a response, don't get sucked in. Repeat the answer and say, "With all due respect, there's no point in going over this again." Or, "In the interest of time, let's table this for later." Then offer to speak offline.
Your content is not at the right level. If you do the right preparation, this shouldn't happen. But sometimes you'll be speaking to an audience with mixed levels of knowledge. If you're not sure of their content level, begin by testing. Ask them to raise their hands, to identify if they are beginners, intermediate, or advanced. Adjust your presentation to the middle unless the majority consists of beginners or advanced members. This is a tough position. Be sure to tell the audience your plan. Begin with a simple overview to clue in the beginners and give higher level references for the real experts in the room.
Anticipate and observe the warning signs in your audience and you'll avoid the presentation danger zone.
What warning signs have you seen?