I’ve been enjoying the new Blu-Ray release of Dire Straits’ 1983 Alchemy concert – which I heartily recommend by the way – and while watching it, I thought of a few useful lessons a presenter could learn from this top-class stage performance.
The first of these is about the endings. While many of Dire Straits’ longer songs (Sultans of Swing, Telegraph Road, Tunnel of Love…) tend to fade out on the album versions, this doesn’t work live at all, so the band came up with different arrangements for their concerts which gave definitive endings to each song – in fact, with Knopfler’s great gestures and Terry Williams’ powerful drumming, each ending was a showpiece in itself.
This has two great effects. Firstly, it ensures the song ends impressively, leaving a strong last impression. Secondly, the obvious ending tells the audience it’s time to start clapping.
Your presentation should do the same. Prepare a great conclusion, make it impressive and memorable, and then give it a clear ending. Here’s an example of what NOT to do:
“OK, that’s about all we’ve got time for today, so does anyone have any questions?”
This makes some key mistakes. Firstly, it sounds as if the speaker has run out of time and not managed the available time very well. Secondly, it is neither impressive nor memorable. Thirdly, it invites questions and not applause.
What happens when the audience doesn’t get a chance to applaud? They don’t remember the presentation nearly as positively as they may have. Applause is the ultimate example of crowd mentality – we clap because other people clap, nobody wants to be the last one left clapping but nobody really wants to stop clapping well before everyone else, and if other people appear to be clapping exuberantly to show their appreciation, you will tend to believe there must have been something worth appreciating, and therefore clap more positively AND remember the presentation more positively.
Therefore it is vital that you give the audience a chance to applaud you, and make it obvious to them when they are supposed to clap (because few people really want to be the first to clap either, unless they are almost certain that others are just about to start clapping too). There are few things more demoralising for a speaker than an uncertain beginning to applause, or one or two people clapping and then stopping because nobody else joined them. It’s quite embarrassing for the audience too. I remember a comedy tape from my younger days where a lone audience member clapped at the wrong time, and the comic ad-libbed: “Ah, there’s a seal in the audience!”
If you aim to have a question & answer session after your presentation (which I thoroughly recommend), do not fall into the trap of the example above. Instead, conclude your presentation, give them the chance to clap, and when the applause is dying down, then thank them for their kind applause and offer to take some questions.
I still vividly remember my one and only Dire Straits concert in 1992 – or at least, I vividly remember one thing: at the end of Sultans of Swing, there was a 5-minute standing ovation which seemed to last forever. It must have been a great performance because I remember so much applause. Of course I don’t remember anything specific about the performance itself – but the applause made my memory positive and lasting. Give your audience a chance to show their appreciation – and it will increase their appreciation.
(PS: I wouldn’t always recommend you copy Knopfler’s reaction to this interminable ovation. At last after 5 minutes (yes, I was counting), he detected the applause beginning to die down, approached the microphone, waited, waited a little longer, and simply said: “Thanks.” It was as if a politician had been asked an extremely long question, and just responded: “No.” It was a very comic moment and had everyone laughing. In other circumstances, you may need to show a little more appreciation unless you are as adulated as Knopfler was back then!)