Friday, April 9, 2010

Tough Topics, Tough Audiences. Part III: Engage the Audience

As environmental professionals, Bren students and alumni are often tasked with communicating complex environmental problems and solutions to "non-environmental" audiences. These audiences can sometimes be unreceptive or even hostile, and speakinng to them can be quite a challenge. On February 26th, the 2010 Doris Duke Fellows hosted a workshop entitled "Tough Topics, Tough Audiences" where public speaking coach Lisa Braithwaite helped Bren students prepare for these difficult situations. The following is an excerpt from her informative presentation. For more on Coach Lisa B., visit her website or blog. You should also check out the excellent resources page she has set up for Bren students.

Engage the Audience

It is very important to engage your audience, to keep them interested in what you're saying. One way to do this is to use relevant stories, examples and analogies. A good analogy can really get your message across; it takes a concept that might not be easy for people to understand, and relates it to something that they know in their lives. Think of Simon Cowell's colorful analogies on American Idol: "that sounded like a nightmare I had" or "like a cat jumping off the empire state building!" Sometimes his analogies aren't that helpful because they're NOT relevant to everyone, but they ARE vivid!

Coach Lisa B. talks to Bren students about engaging their audience.

You can also use emotion to connect and use humor to diffuse tense situations. Self-deprecating humor is always good. Making fun of yourself breaks down audience barriers and makes you look human (but don't to it too much or you look insecure). It is NEVER a good ideas to do humor at an audience member's expense.

Research shows that people are different types of learners: auditory, kinesthetic, visual, etc. In an effort to engage all types of learners, try to get your audience moving and/or doing at least once in your presentation. When you ask a question to a room, you often get silence. But if you ask it and then say, "Discuss it among yourselves," then the room is buzzing and when you come back, people are more willing to talk--partly just because that silence barrier has been broken.

This format also provides a safe space where people can talk who aren't comfortable raising their hand in front of the room. Additionally, it takes the focus off you, gives you a break, and gives them a break from you! When breaking people into groups, however, be aware of the room. You don't want to take up too much time with people moving or climbing over aisles, chairs, etc. If moving is too difficult, you can alwasy say, "Talk about it with your neighbor."

On a related note, people do learn in a lot of different ways. Be aware of that and don't pre-judge your audience. Just because someone is playing games on their phone, it doesn't mean they're not listening to you. Perhaps they are a kinesthetic learner and having something to do with their hands might actually help them absorb your information.

For more tips on engaging your audience, check out Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (listed uner "Recommended Reading" on Lisa's Bren resources page). It's a marketing book about making ideas sticky and memorable, but is very applicable to public speaking.

Check back soon for Tough Topics, Tough Audiences Part IV: Meet the Audience Where They Are.

--Audrey Tresham

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