The Golden Rule of Speaking: Respect Your Audience

Have you ever attended a presentation where the speaker said something like, “Let’s see… what does my next slide say?” Or where the speaker actually read word-for-word what was on their slides?

Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed countless speeches where these or similar scenarios occurred.

And you know what? It really bugs me!

Because in addition to showing me that he or she was not prepared to present, the speaker also showed a sheer lack of respect for me and the rest of the audience. Speakers who don’t prepare, have illegible slides, or break a host of other “rules” are not respecting their audience. And that’s just not okay.

I get it: people are busy.

I’m busy. So are you, yet you’re taking the time to read this blog.

Being busy is no excuse to skip preparing for a presentation or speech. Because if you don’t respect your audience, they won’t hear your story.

Honor the Golden Rule

The whole point of any speech or presentation is to get your message heard by the audience. And the number one thing you need to do to accomplish that is respect your audience.

While it takes a little time, it’s not as hard as it may seem.

First, create a clear, concise Message Map to use as the basis of your presentation. This tool will help you stay on message during your speech and tell your story better.

respect your audience
Respect your audience. Straying from your key message can lead your audience to ignore you.

Next, using your Message Map, create your presentation or speech. If you’re using slides, the fewer and simpler, the better.

In fact, here are a few tips for ensuring you respect your audience when using visual aids:

  • You are the focus, not your slides. Use them for emphasis to back you up, not the other way around. You want the audience to pay attention to you first, not try to read your slides ahead of you.
  • Remember that a picture is worth 1,000 words. Aim to use more graphics and pictures, not only words.
  • All the words on your slides should be legible, even by the people in the back row. Keep that font large – make the minimum type size half the age of the oldest audience member.
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms. Don’t make your audience try to figure out what you’re saying.For example, as my partner George Stenitzer says in his blog on avoiding jargon, “Should a doctor say that you had a myocardial infarction or a heart attack?” Make sure you speak in language your entire audience will understand.

Tell a story

You’ve surely heard many times that telling stories works.

Stories make your message real. They help the audience relate to you. They’re more enjoyable to listen to than a speech full of only facts and figures.

In fact, as Emma Ledden says in her article, “Stories make facts more digestible and, in telling them, you, as a speaker, appear more human, more approachable and more audience friendly. The best speakers reach into their bag of stories and bring their presentations to life.”

Practice makes perfect

Once you have your content, you need to practice. I don’t mean for hours.

But do practice enough that you’re comfortable with your presentation and only need to glance at your cards or slides for reference. Unless you are quoting someone, don’t read anything word-for-word.

Plus, saying your speech out loud a few times alerts you to any potential stumbling blocks, so you can fix them before it’s too late. There are also apps that will read your speech to you, so you can hear how it sounds.

That said, I still recommend speaking it aloud yourself to be completely comfortable with it.

It takes more than good content

Even with the best content in the world, it’s still possible to disrespect your audience. Many speakers distract or bore their audiences, which makes it harder for them to get their story heard.

Common presenter behaviors that distract audiences include these. Presenters:

  • Forget to turn their phone off or on silent. Turn your phone completely off, and for the best results, don’t bring it with you on stage. If you use your own computer to present, make sure notifications and volume are turned off.
  • Jingle keys in their pocket or play with their conference badge or jewelry. This is usually out of nervousness, but it distracts the audience and alerts them to your nervousness. For best results, remove keys and badges, and wear minimal jewelry if you are prone to this habit.
  • Pace nervously instead of moving purposefully on the stage. Simply walking back and forth over and over can distract your audience and signal that you are nervous. Instead, move during pauses, or gesture to make a point.
  • Run over the allotted time. As Bill Lampton notes in his blog, “Exceeding your time limit will inconvenience participants, and probably other speakers who follow you.” Audience members are busy too, and when a presentation is scheduled for a certain amount of time, they plan for that. Speakers who ignore the countdown clock run the risk of turning off their audience.
  • Starting late because of technology issues. If you are using visuals, arrive early to make sure everything is set up and working. The audience expects speakers to start on time.

People accept speaking opportunities to get their story heard. But the audience won’t hear your story if you disrespect or distract them. You can win over your audience with a clear message, preparation, and attention to detail.

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