A colleague of mine sent me an email tonight. It read:
“Where do I begin? This had to be the worst seminar I’ve been to… I’m not sure how you could approach this guy, but he needs help! Could be a ‘what not to do’ for your presentations!” <link>
Wow. Somebody took the time and effort to put together what turned out to be an audio podcast (when I followed the link and listened) in a round table format with experts in a particular business area. And instead of positively influencing his listeners, he managed to stimulate negative word of mouth and what read to me like anger.
What went wrong? Here are a few things I noted very quickly.
1) The person had an accent and may not have been a native English speaker. Nothing wrong with that. I mention it because I feel it contributed to demonstration of a speech habit that is common when trying to find just the right words in a vocal presentation. It’s not unique to second-language speakers… I hear it from English speakers as well. He inserted “umm, uh, uh, uh” in between every few words. “So if um, uh, uh, uh, you um, wanted to, um, uh, uh, uh, use this um, uh, uh model, um how would you um, uh, uh go about it?”
This is a tremendously difficult habit to break. If I worked with him and asked him to listen to his own recording and mark down the number of times he says “um”, I guarantee you he would come up with a total count of only half the actual number. His brain has filtered out the sound. He is attempting to retain control of the conversation by continuing to talk so that nobody else can jump in and step over his train of thought. Mind you, he doesn’t think of it that way. It’s an unconscious mechanism.
Fixing a habit this ingrained takes serious coaching and practice over time. At first, the effort is incredibly frustrating for the speaker. I would listen to the recording with him and tap my pen on the table every time he makes his filler noise. Then I would invite him to present a speech to me live and quietly say “now” every time he does it. The idea is not to shame him or depress him, although it’s hard to stay upbeat in the face of an onslaught like that. The idea is to force his brain to stop and notice the sound. He would not be able to complete his sentences and would get very flustered and agitated. It’s not a pretty part of the process and needs a lot of careful explanation and encouragement in order to retain trust and cooperation and a willingness to proceed.
I would then try to get him to notice the noise himself. Every time he hears himself saying um, I would have him tap his finger against his leg. Don’t stop, don’t back up, don’t fix the sentence. Simply acknowledge it as you continue talking. This is another exercise in getting the brain to lose its filter and recover an ability to hear and notice the noise.
I would also have him violate a primary principal of good audio vocal presentation. I would encourage him to pause and think about what next word works best in the sentence. His speech would become choppy and filled with blank spots. Not pretty. But it would train him to think about word selection ahead of the next phrase.
Over time and with practice, the ums would disappear as he notices them. His brain would start thinking ahead to the next word or phrase while he is speaking the current phrase. His speech would naturally smooth out and become more measured and professional in phrasing.
2) He started his presentation with an advertisement. Before introducing his guests, before introducing the topic, he started with a long sales pitch for the services he offers and his background in his industry. Great information, but delivered in the wrong place. His audience didn’t choose to listen to the podcast because they wanted to hear about his business services. They chose to listen because they had an interest in the topic material and wanted to hear from the advertised guest experts. Give the audience what they came for up front. Give them value first and they’ll stick around to hear about the great person who delivered it as a follow-through activity.
3) He never addressed the audience and didn’t invite his guests to do so. Everything was presented in academic, third-person phrasing. “People often find that…” “Some people have a problem with…” I never once felt that he was speaking to me, the listener. I was eavesdropping on some folks having an esoteric conversation about theoretical situations. There’s no power of persuasiveness in that.
4) He was too protective of his own importance in the round table. If you set yourself up as moderator for comments from guest experts, you have to play that role all the way through. He would ask his guests a question, listen impatiently to their answer, and then jump in with “I agree. This is the way I’ve dealt with that.” If you keep asking questions and then answering them yourself, the audience doesn’t put much stake in the information. Baseball crowds loved Babe Ruth because he could hit home runs off opposing pitchers. Not because he could gently toss a ball in the air and then hit it over the fence himself.
Are you angering your audience instead of influencing and persuading them? Listen to a recording of yourself. Forget about how important the material is for a moment. Does the way it is presented make you care, make you want to listen to more? As a listener, are you being addressed directly and acknowledged as having interests and concerns? If not, it’s time to do some work on your presentation skills. You’ll hate the process, but you’ll love the results.