audience rapport

Avoid Killing Your Audience with Deadly Speaking Habits

Great speakers don’t kill their audiences. They build rapport, start strong, follow a clear path and finish with a pop. They don’t make lame jokes, read their slides verbatim or avoid looking their audience in the eye.

Great speakers don’t kill their audiences. They build rapport, start strong, follow a clear path and finish with a pop. They don’t make lame jokes, read their slides verbatim or avoid looking their audience in the eye.

You can spiff up your presentation skills. Start by taking the advice of an accounting intern. Seriously, take his advice.

Jeff Chappell, an accounting analyst intern at Dell, bases his recommendations for better presentations on experience. The experience of watching many awkward, emotionless and ineffective presentations. There is no better experience than that.

He identifies seven deadly presentation habits you need to shed to avoid putting your audience to sleep:

  • Treating a presentation as a teleprompter and reading each slide word for word, unless you're a pro script reader, like Jimmy Fallon.
  • Telling the audience you’re nervous or a bad public speaker.
  • Starting with a joke, which can often fall flat.
  • Zooming through the presentation like a race car driver seeing how fast he can finish.
  • Sticking with your script even when you see audience members squirming or checking their smartphones.
  • Maintaining weak or no eye contact with your audience.
  • Closing meekly.

None of these suggestions is revolutionary. Taken together, they represent pretty solid advice.

A boring presentation can leave you wishing you'd spent your time elsewhere. That's why it's critical to avoid bad presentation habits, which Jeff Chappell laid out this month on LinkedIn. 

A boring presentation can leave you wishing you'd spent your time elsewhere. That's why it's critical to avoid bad presentation habits, which Jeff Chappell laid out this month on LinkedIn. 

Think about dreadful presentations you have endured when speakers got off to a lame start, droned on and ended with a poof instead of a pop. What you remember was how bad the presentation was, not what the presentation was about. At best, you may have contemplated in your mind what the presentation could have been – informative, inspiring, interesting.

Chappell’s recommendations came in a blog he posted on LinkedIn. He attributed some of his suggestions to lessons he learned in a presentation skills class taught at Dell. Chappell said he wrote the blog because “the cost of having one of the seven deadly habits of public speaking is too high to be ignored.” And the price to correct these deadly habits is relatively inexpensive. “Practice,” he says, is the difference.

“It doesn’t matter if you practice on the phone, in the shower or in front of friends, just practice correctly,” Chappell advises. “After a few sessions of practice, you’ll be wowing the audience with your confidence and professionalism.” It takes more than that, but you would definitely be on the right track.

Great speakers start by establishing a rapport with their audience, then making a compelling introduction of their speech topic. They give the audience a map of where the speech will go, then walk them through key points. They build momentum and anticipation as they go along, then end with a powerful crescendo. They use body language to help tell the story.

Not all great speakers use presentations, but when they do, their presentations are graphically-based reminders of key points in the speech. The presentation reinforces the message rather than distracting the speaker or the audience.

You might call these the heavenly habits of great speakers, which will lift you up in the eyes of your audience and send them home with positive thoughts, clear impressions and indelible messages.

Getting Your Audience to Lean In

A great ending to a speech is only great if the audience is still listening. The most important part of the speech is a rapport-building beginning.

A great ending to a speech is only great if the audience is still listening. The most important part of the speech is a rapport-building beginning.

The first thing a speaker or presenter must do is establish rapport with his or her audience. Unless listeners are leaning in, they are likely to tune out.

Giving a speech or presentation requires careful preparation and practice. But even the best speech or clever presentation can fall flat if there is a gulf between speaker and audience. 

Bridging that gulf is what separates speakers from good speakers. It also is what distinguishes a speech you hear versus a speech you remember. 

Establishing speaker-audience rapport rests with the speaker. Even if you pay to hear someone, you expect the speaker to make the first move to create a bond, a reason for sharing time and mental energy together and a good excuse not to check smartphone messages.

Here are some tips on how to establish rapport with your audience:

Call out associations you have with the audience or members of the audience. 

Former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson started his speech at the Portland City Club by briefly describing tours he had taken and recognizing people in the audience for their roles in the success stories he had seen. Thompson made a connection between himself and his audience that he underscored throughout his speech with examples from his Portland site visits. The speech was more than a decade ago and I can still remember how he opened it and his main points, especially his strong advocacy for public health. 

Tell a heartwarming story

Stories unite people. We instinctively lean in when someone is telling a story, especially a personal story that has emotional value. Stories personalize speakers by making them less like someone behind a podium or in front of a PowerPoint presentation and more like everyone in the audience.

Use self-effacing humor

Jokes can be dangerous. The safest application of humor is when you make fun of yourself. The key is to be self-effacing without appearing disingenuous. You also don't want to convey to your audience that you are a buffoon. Laughing at yourself can be disarming, all the more so if the punch line serves as a segue into the content of your speech or presentation. 

Touch an emotional nerve

Be aware of what's going on the world around you and, when appropriate, use a commonly shared emotion as a rapport-builder. Tapping into the emotions of an audience is tricky and demands a solid read on the audience so you draw them toward you in sympathy, not spark resentment or even disgust. But when done with the proper empathetic touch, it can be a powerful way to put you and your audience on the same page.

Many speakers devote a great deal of their energy finding the right ending. They should spend an equal amount of time figuring out how to start so their audience joins them on the journey, rather than taking an early detour.