It may sound blindingly obvious, but if you cannot hear somebody clearly (and assuming you can’t lip-read), you are going to have trouble receiving whatever messages they are trying to pass to you.
Despite the obviousness of this statement, it is remarkable how many presenters do not pay attention to this absolutely fundamental aspect of speaking in public!
I have lost count of the number of times I have been sitting in a large room or amphitheatre, and a speaker with no microphone has been muttering as if speaking only to himself or perhaps to somebody standing right next to him.
The natural reaction of even the most interested listener will be to switch off after a few minutes of effort straining his or her ears to hear what is being said. Sometimes someone may ask the speaker to speak up. This sometimes works but rarely for a long period, because if the speaker was careless enough to be inaudible to start with, it’s highly likely they’ll be careless enough to let their voice drop again sooner or later.
Remember, your aim is not just to be heard: it is to be heard loudly and clearly! A commanding voice is a convincing voice, and you have a far better chance of being respected (key 3) if you sound convincing.
Not everyone is blessed with a loud and clear voice. It doesn’t matter. Modern technology has come to the rescue, and it’s not hard to find a suitable microphone and a means of getting your voice amplified – many rooms are already equipped.
Here are some tips on how to make yourself heard.
1. Test the room
Again it sounds obvious, but how often do you actually go into the room where you will have to present, and check how loudly you need to speak to reach the people at the back? Rarely, I’ll bet. Equally if there is a sound system with fixed or mobile microphones, did you test it before the big day? Doesn’t it look unprofessional when a speaker has to fiddle with his tie-mike because it’s too high or too low? Take someone with you and test it out.
Remember, assumption leads to disappointment. Here are some assumptions to avoid:
a) Don’t assume the acoustics will be great. They are often quite poor.
b) Don’t assume the room will be as quiet as it is when you’re testing it with a friend or colleague sitting at the back. Dozens or hundreds of people sitting quietly will still breathe, fumble and rustle – and, heaven forbid, whisper to each other – so the background noise level during your presentation will be higher than during your test.
c) Don’t assume the technology will work. Make sure you have a Plan B, ideally one which doesn’t involve technology, such as that old idea of speaking loudly and clearly…
So you’ve tested the room and any technology that is supposed to help you. Is that enough? Perhaps not… read on!
2. Prepare your voice
Even the best microphone won’t help you if you walk up on stage having lost your voice. It can only amplify, not improve, and if your voice is reduced to a pathetic squeak, then through the speakers it will sound like a loud pathetic squeak.
There are a number of things you can do to prepare your voice so it sounds clear, crisp and convincing. A great tip I heard from a successful rock singer was to avoid alcohol. Like caffeine, it acts as a diuretic which ends up drying out your throat and mouth, and furthermore it irritates your throat. There are many other things to remember, and I refer you to an excellent list here from the NIDCD, a US health agency.
3. Make sure they are listening
OK, so you’ve done your preparation and your voice sounds like James Earl Jones. Is that enough? Not quite. Ever heard the expression “in one ear and out of the other”? It is extremely relevant, because I will be willing to bet that in no presentation does every participant listen to every word. Perhaps men don’t really think about sex every seven seconds, but there’s a fair chance that men and women will daydream a little at some points.
Here is a list of things which will make your listeners stop listening, and ideas to prevent this from happening:
a) They are reading your slides instead of listening to you.
Answer: don’t put too many words on the wall behind you! The human brain finds it very hard to read and listen simultaneously. It is possible however to examine a picture or graph while listening. This is one reason why pictures and graphs are so much more powerful than endless bullet-points and tables of data.
b) They are bored.
Answer: don’t be boring! OK, easier said than done, but I’ll be putting plenty of tips on this blog to ensure you keep their interest from start to finish.
c) They are talking to each other.
Answer: try to stop this from happening, but without appearing annoying or dictatorial – if you handle this the wrong way, then the people in question might react badly and stop listening altogether. Don’t point to the miscreants and ask: “Did one of you have something to say?” You could just stop and look at them, and when they make eye-contact with you, smile and raise your eyebrows quickly as if to thank them for paying attention again, and then move on quickly.
If there is a general hubbub with many people talking, which may happen for the right reasons if you have said something particularly controversial, memorable or thought-provoking, you can either stand still, look calmly at the audience and wait for everyone to stop speaking (silence can spread just as quickly as disquiet); or if you judge it might be more appropriate, you can clap your hands twice and make a small joke to move things on, such as: “OK everyone, it’ll be lunchtime soon and I don’t want to have to keep you here too late so let’s move on.”
d) They are using their PC, phone or PDA to read or write messages.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon but an increasingly frequent one. Email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, cricket scores… today’s networks offer endless distractions, which can be the scourge of successful communication. Your challenge is to get everyone to accept not to use their various devices while you are speaking. This is not easy. I have seen various attempts to do this, not all very successful:
One presenter said: “I thank you in advance for switching your phones on at the end of the session” – i.e. make sure they are turned off now. It could have worked if it had been used in a humorous way, maybe with other humorous introductory comments. Unfortunately he came across like a schoolteacher so it certainly didn’t succeed.
Often I have seen a slide with ‘ground rules’ which state ‘PCs and phones must be switched off’. Again this tends to come across as if a schoolteacher is speaking to unruly kids, and unless you really are dealing with unruly kids, you probably don’t want your listeners to think that’s how you perceive them.
Sometimes a humorous approach can work, such as stating at the start: “You are welcome to keep your phones switched on, in fact I hope you will, because if your phone rings, I will take great pleasure in answering it for you!” Or: “My assistant will be calling all your phone numbers during this session, and if I hear a phone ringing, its owner will have to come to the front and sing a cheesy song of my choice.” In the right circumstances these solutions can persuade people gently that they should be switching their phones off. Don’t try this in front of a group of customers though!
The best practice in this area, in my view, is to make a deal with the participants. This works especially well for a training course where you will be with them for more than a single hour-long session. You promise to give them enough breaks so they can listen to voicemail, make important calls, check cricket scores etc, and during your sessions you promise to keep them absolutely fascinated. In return, you need their undivided attention during the sessions, which means switching off PCs and phones so they can get the most benefit. Deal?
In the end, however, it is important to remember that you need to earn their attention, and even if they switch off their PDAs at the start, they will quickly switch them on again if you are boring, particularly with Generation Y (now young adults) who have grown up with technology and tend to have a short attention span for anything remotely yawn-inducing. There will be more in the Best Practices section about how to grab and keep their attention.
If you apply all these lessons, your message should be heard. Will it be understood? That’s a different question, which we’ll handle in part two of this blog series on the 4 Aims of Presentation.