What do you do when you have to speak in front of a large group of people or when you are expected to present information at a high-stakes meeting?
There are three basic steps that everyone has to do in order to prepare themselves to be at their best when presenting in front of a group:
- Know what you want them to hear.
- Outline the “story” of your presentation.
While these three steps are crucial to present your best work, they don’t deal with the most insidious destroyer of people’s confidence and ability to connect: expectation.
What’s the problem with having expectations?
There is nothing wrong with having the expectation that you will do your best or that you will work hard. That focuses your energy on things that you can control. When you have an expectation for an outcome (like an audience’s reaction), then you are not being present in the moment. You are living in an expectation of results that you cannot actually control. This thought process brings us out of the present and into the future.
In my opinion, the most powerful speakers (and leaders) are the ones who can be fully present in front of a room.
When I have coached speakers who are preparing a TEDx talk, one of the first challenges they face is letting go of the pressure that this talk “has to be great.” While it is admirable to want to give a great speech, it is important to ask ourselves an important question:
What do we really mean when we say “great”?
Comparing it to other great speeches: Often we are comparing it to some speech we have seen or some ideal in our head. Either way, the comparison and the expectation is pointless. You can’t play to it.
For example: one of the hardest roles for an actor to play is Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Most young male actors yearn for the opportunity to play the role, in part because it is one of Tennessee Williams’ finest plays, but mostly because this guy made it famous:
(That’s Marlon Brando making undershirts sexy since 1950.)
Any actor who takes on this role has to deal with dual expectations. First he has to deal with his own expectations on what it means to play Brando’s most iconic role, which creates a lot of pressure. Second, he has to deal with the expectation by the audience members who are often overly familiar with the Brando performance. The result is usually some form of disappointment on both sides.
This is not to say that the role could not be improved or that actors should just give up trying to play the part ever again. Not at all. Rather, the point is that if the actors performs with the expectation that he has to measure up to Brando, then he will always be caught in his shadow. When actors focus instead on the part itself, they are more likely to be present to the challenges within the part (things you can control), rather than trying to manage the perception that Brando left behind (things you can’t control).
Take TED talks for example. There are many different kinds of TED speakers who have been extremely successful. (Here‘s a list of the top 36 most viewed talks.) If you are a TED fan, you have probably watched most of them already. The thing that strikes me the most about these is not what is most similar between them, rather what is most different. Amy Cuddy is nothing like Ken Robinson or Benjamin Zander. It would be silly for them to try to be like each other. Not just silly but counter-productive. I have seen speakers try to be give a “TED talk” and what comes out is like a shiny empty shell. It ultimately reads as inauthentic.
“Don’t expect applause”
I once heard this saying a few years ago and it has had a powerful impact on me since then. What happens when our expectation of giving a “great” speech is actually an expectation that the audience will give us an ovation? Mainly that our focus becomes less about the talk and more about the outcome. Worse, it becomes entirely about how the audience receives the talk, rather than on how well we give the talk.
One could make the argument that a great speech will get great applause, and that is mostly true. However, there is a distinct difference between speaking from a canned, performative place (one in which is trying to engender a response from the audience) and speaking from the heart. Communication that comes from the heart and is genuine will usually outweigh the slickest of performances.
There is an added benefit as well to giving up the expectation of applause and that is the lowering of anxiety.
Anxiety: This can be a useful tool when we are preparing a major project or speech. It helps us to focus, it motivates us to work hard and it keeps us aware of things that might go wrong. It is not, however, helpful when it is applied to things we cannot control.
And we cannot control an audience’s response.
You may remember me saying in my last post that a helpful tip is to believe that the audience loves you already. This is still true, but it isn’t helpful to have the expectation that they will love you more after they hear this speech. That only creates added pressure.
The only way to build our confidence with our communication skills (and to gradually project more confidence) is to focus our energies on the process and on engaging the audience in the present. We can certainly use the feedback that we get from an audience in real time, but we are better off not getting attached to what that feedback should look like.
And if you are thinking that a good trick would be to just assume a negative reaction, you would be wrong. When we do that we tend to flatten our voices and present in a “hurt” or “damaged” tone of voice (much like Eeyore).
(Remember, nobody really listens to Eeyore.)
The best practice is to focus entirely on what we want people to hear instead of what you hope they will do. Picture the impact that you want and build your communication backward from that. While it may sound like a lot right now, it will get easier the more you do it.
It is also important to become more aware of how you feel about your message and about your audience. If you have high expectations that your audience will applaud your message, then you may be communicating either a kind of arrogance or neediness. Remember that the goal is to make your message clean, without any hooks or snags to get in the way of what you want them to hear.
The more we work on clarifying and refining our story, and the less of an expectation we have on the outcome, the more of an impact we can have on our audience.