Public speaker worried about losing control? Don’t have lectures – have conversations

| speaking, web2.0

Public speaking is the greatest fear people have, and losing control seems to be the greatest fear that public speakers have. Like the way that companies have to adapt to social media’s effects on brands, speakers have to adapt to the reactions that spread like wildfire through social tools, reaching people far outside the auditorium’s walls.

This fear of losing control is interesting, because I love turning that speaker-audience relationship upside down. It’s incredibly more powerful and more fulfilling than lecturing, and you’re going to love it too.

Jeremiah Owyang posted great tips on how power is shifting to the audience, and how speakers can develop social media strategies to adapt. He said:

Critics would suggest that monitoring the backchannel is counter intuitive to what a speaker should be doing: focused on presenting. Yet, I’d argue that some power has shifted to the audience –and with that comes responsibility of the speaker to respond to the power shift. As a speaker… I feel empathy and at the same time am scared this doesn’t happen to me. The best way for speakers to avoid this revolt is to make sure that they be aware of the changes in power shifts and develop a plan to integrate social.

I’d love to hear from you how speakers should respond to the power shifting to the audience, I know there’s a lot I can continue to learn in the craft of speaking. What should speakers do?

I love giving people power, and that’s part of why I love speaking. I love learning as much from people as they learn from me. I love discovering where we can go together. The word “audience” bothers me because it’s too passive, just as I hate being referred to as a “consumer”. So here’s the unconventional perspective that makes it easy for me to ditch my slides when I want to, embrace the backchannel, and have conversations instead of lectures:

A speech is the start of a conversation, not a one-way street. It’s not about advertising your company. It’s not about building your reputation. It’s about helping people learn something, understand something, or be inspired to do something. It’s about starting a hundred or a thousand conversations. It’s about discovery.

The speaker’s work is important. When you speak, you give abstract concepts names, flesh them out, and make them real. When you speak, you can weave different threads into stories that help people understand. When you speak, you can help people figure out what to do next.

The participants are the ones who do the real magic. If you can inspire people to think about what you’ve shared and build on it, if you can help them understand a complex topic and act on what they’ve learned, if they go on to share that with others… fantastic!

Your role as a speaker is to set the stage and enable people to succeed. You’re there to serve them, not allow them to bask in your presence. ;)

So for your next talk, flip your perspective around.
Realize that presenting is a privilege, and work on living up to it. Create as much value as you can. Look for ways you can learn from people. It may take some getting used to–learning how to wait in silence was tough for me, but it’s essential for drawing out questions!–but it’ll definitely be worth it.

But wait, you think, that’s all very good if you’re facing a small group, but what about a large session? I find that I can have a conversation-like atmosphere with around 300 people if I step away from the podium, use a lapel mike, warm up the audience a little beforehand, and have fun. I’ve given keynotes to larger groups before, and when you’re in an auditorium with a thousand people, that does get tough.

You can still have a conversation with thousands of people. You might not do it with interruptions from raised hands, but you can do it on your blog by posting your material before or after your session. You can encourage people to post their thoughts and comments in a backchannel, and periodically review that (maybe during your water breaks?) to check the pulse. You can keep the conversation going by giving people a link to your presentation or related blog post. (If you don’t have a blog yet, you should definitely start one.) In fact, the more people are listening, the more important it is that you have some kind of conversation going. If you’re off track, you’re wasting a lot of people’s time. If you’re not listening, you’re wasting a lot of people’s insights.

Okay, maybe not all sessions can be this interactive, but far more of them can have this magic than most people would think. I’ve had fantastic afternoon sessions even when I was the last person on the agenda after a full day of talks. I’ve spoken after lunch, after awesome speakers, after boring speakers. The challenge I’m currently working on is figuring out how to facilitate this kind of energy during teleconferences with people from different cultures. (People from North America and Europe tend to jump right in, while other people tend to be quieter, but maybe other techniques can help!) But there are far more opportunities to have these kinds of conversations that most people realize, and I hate watching people squander those opportunities on lectures. (Unless they can be as inspiring as the TED talks!)

Try it out – you’ll feel awesome when you build listening into your speaking. You might be wondering how you can manage listening to people while talking at the same time. Let your body deal with listening to people’s body language in the room. Pay enough attention and you’ll find yourself physically mirroring little things about the audience – tension, interest, understanding. Can’t read and speak? Read the notes during your water breaks and course-correct, or have a buddy in the audience give you cues. And when you pull off your first wildly interactive session, when you were totally in the zone and everything just flowed, you’ll feel such an amazing buzz.

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at