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Three ways to have your audience at ‘hello’ (and avoid the pitfalls of newbie public speakers)


Carolyn Creswell, the CEO of Carmen’s Muesli recently opened a 7:30 am breakfast meeting by saying, “When the alarm went off this morning, I thought this breakfast seminar better be good. And then I thought: Shit I better be good!”

The audience laughed and connected with her straight away. Carolyn had her audience at hello.

No matter what you are doing in business, whether you are pitching, presenting or selling your big new idea, here are three things that you can do to make that important first impression count.

1. Identify and research your audience

The first step should be obvious. You need to think about and research your audience.

  • Who are they?
  • What motivates them?
  • What will they be thinking?
  • Why will they listen to what you say?

If you are pitching for work with a new client, what do they really want to hear? Is it the history of your company and how many employees you have (Hint: YAWN Boring) or is it about how you have successfully serviced clients just like them?

If you don’t know your audience that well then speak to someone who does know them better than you. Research your audience so you can put in place the strategy we suggest you adopt the approach below, like our client Jack did.

Jack was preparing to present at a Road Show. We asked Jack what his audience would be thinking and he answered honestly with this: “Well, when I was on the other side of the fence and had to attend Road Shows, I would think ‘Not another bloody Road Show’, so I have no doubt that this is what they will be thinking”.

Jack used this piece of research information (it wasn’t hard, was it?) and started his presentation with, “So I know you are all probably thinking, not another bloody Road Show”.

Through that one line, Jack had his audience chuckling, by acknowledging what they were thinking. Jack was immediately on the audience’s side.

Always try to tap into what your audience is thinking and use that as part of your winning pitch.

2. Avoid housekeeping and apologies

Here’s the best way to ‘lose’ them at hello. Start your presentation with any sort of housekeeping announcement or an apology.

Delegate any housekeeping stuff to someone else. If there is absolutely no way of getting out of it, do not waste that vital first impression with this announcement. Be wise and do it at a later point, say it after five minutes of the pitch or presentation. If anyone is busting to go to the toilet, they would have found it by now – no doubt.

Our pet hate is any speaker who starts with an apology, stuff like “My apologies, I couldn’t get all the images I wanted on the slides” or “Sorry I have to rush through this as I want to cover as much as possible in the short time I have with you”.

The tough news is your audience doesn’t care, irrespective if that audience is a group of five hundred or just a handful of people you are pitching to. In fact, sometimes you can even see the words ‘Loser’ hovering in the thought bubble over the audience.

Sorry, this is ‘Tough Love’ – we have to call it as it is.

Don’t waste their time, your audience just wants you to do the best you can in the circumstances.

The only exception to this is if something does go seriously wrong. If you are 30 minutes late and have kept everyone waiting then this deserves a genuine apology. If the audience came to see a specific speaker and you are a last minute fill in, this needs some sort of explanation and an apology. But make it funny and keep it real.

3. Give them a reason to listen

What next? Identify why your audience should listen to you and your message. To do that you need to answer the question that your audience will be thinking, which is “Who are you and why should I spend my time giving you my attention?”

One of the ways to address this is to start with a story and it doesn’t have to be long, as this next example illustrates.

You might have heard of Anna Gare, the new judge in the first episode of Junior Master Chef in Australia.

When Anna was introduced to her audience, she said, “I started cooking when I was your age and I could barely see over the counter”. Her audience laughed and immediately connected with her.

Anna opened with something personal that demonstrated empathy for her audience. Empathy, humour, connection all in less than 30 seconds. Do you think you could achieve all three in the first 30 seconds of your opening when you make your next pitch?

Annette Simmons, story expert, says one of the first things you need to share are “Who am I?” stories, that is, what personal qualities make you a trustworthy person in this context. Its wisdom rests on that old adage “people need to trust you before they trust your message”.

Anna’s use of self disclosure shows that it doesn’t have to be a long story that trawls all the milestones in her life, which can be boring and certainly wouldn’t have held her audience’s attention or worked on prime time TV. It can be one sentence that shows who you are and tells the audience what they need to know about you that is relevant to them.

You need to practice this story a few times with someone you trust to make sure it’s right for your audience and your purpose. Test your story out before going live with it, to make sure it strikes the right note of humility and humour.

Wrap it up (with a ribbon)

So, how will get have your next audience at hello?

  • First Research your audience
  • Make sure your first line is about your audience not about you
  • Never ever start with a housekeeping announcement unless you want to lose your audience at hello
  • Never start with an apology unless something is seriously wrong
  • Use a “Who am I story” to tell your audience what they need to know about you that is relevant to them
  • Test out your story before going live

What tactics do you use to engage an audience? Have you ever alienated a crowd by accident? We’re keen to hear your experiences, tips and confessions below.

Gabrielle Dolan & Yamini Naidu are co-founders of One Thousand & One, Australia’s first organisational storytelling company. They have a free eBook ‘Eliminate Death by PowerPoint’ available immediately at www.onethousandandone.com.au