Captivate Your Audience

Mastery on display

Years ago, I had the opportunity to train the high-profile keynote speakers at The Ken Blanchard Companies. Ken’s enduring brand grew out of his many best-selling management books, beginning back in 1982 with “Leadership and the One Minute Manager.”

A magically inspirational speaker himself, Ken hires only top-notch presenters to represent his company. All are stars in their own right.

Working with these pros was great fun. The day crackled with the energy that comes when experts have the luxury to focus on what they love. We talked at a pretty geeky level about subtleties like the length of a pause and head tilts.

We taped each presenter in seven-minute blocks and then played the blocks back. (On a whole other level of geekiness, they competed to see who could hit the exact seven minute mark on instinct alone.)

In turn, each of them would cross the room, putting distance between us and them. They were, after all, working on their platform skills. Often I could see them turn on their keynote speaking persona; their energy would rise and a gleam would spread over their face. The performance had begun. And they were great.

The master of masters

During the afternoon, Ken came to sit in. I’d never met him and was delighted to have him join us. The speakers, of course, had known him for years. The warmth they all felt towards him was obvious. He was easy to like; he had no air of celebrity or power about him.

We continued taping and playing back the seven-minute segments.

At one point, someone turned to Ken and urged him to take a crack at hitting seven minutes. With a smile, he said, “Okay.”

As he walked from where he’d been sitting in the back of the room, he was looking at us all. I was a bit surprised to see him so connected to us. I wondered when he would mentally flip through his trove of stories and select one to tell these people who surely knew his material well.

Instead of crossing the room, he stopped just a couple of feet from us. Then, hunching just the tiniest bit, as if to whisper a secret, he put his arms out and gestured us all to scoot closer. We hopped our chairs toward him. I smiled, feeling like a kid on the rug at story time: I didn’t know what was coming but I was all in!

He said, “I don’t know if any of you ever met Reverend Jim Alpert.” He said it so conversationally, I didn’t think he’d begun. But after two more sentences, I realized that, yes, he had begun. I quickly started the stopwatch.

Ken told us a story about kindness. He spun it out with such mastery that when he was done, several of us wiped our eyes—even some who’d heard it before!

I had no doubt he had told the story hundreds of times, refining it to its essence. But in his delivery there’d been no hint of repetition. He’d been fully engaged with every moment of his story.

And guess what? He told it in exactly seven minutes! When I admitted my small lapse with the stopwatch, there was good-natured protesting that Ken hadn’t really hit seven minutes. But he’d come closer than anyone else!

Having the chance to watch this master perform was a gift. I delighted not only in his ability to captivate us while he was speaking, but in his ability to entrance us even before he spoke a word.

How did he do it?

Here are two of his behaviors you can adopt:

First, start before you ever stand up.

Second, begin inside a story.

Start before you stand up

When Ken arrived in front of us, he did not speak. At least not at first. He looked at us. And he beckoned us closer. But he didn’t speak. And we were hooked.

This moment of silence is important. When most speakers get up to speak, they are so amped up their words tumble out in an adrenalized rush.

Ken’s silence, on the other hand, was embracing. In his silence, Ken looked at us. I sensed that he really saw us—we weren’t just a blur of faces. And he seemed completely comfortable allowing us to look at him, too.

He seemed to have something he wanted to share with us, yes, but he didn’t seem focused on what he was about to say. He wasn’t thinking about himself and what we might think of him. And he wasn’t trying to get his thoughts in order. Rather he was thinking about us and how best to tell his story to this particular group of people on this particular day. He had already started presenting. And he hadn’t spoken a word.

The next time you attend a meeting, listen to how people begin their presentations. Often the presenter begins with a loud intake of breath, then a big, “Okay!” The signal is clear: Now I have my thoughts together. Now I can begin my performance.

I want to be clear: this is not bad. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with turning up your energy and letting us know the presentation is about to happen! I’d rather see someone do that than try to listen to the person who seems oblivious of the energy required to engage a room.

But with Ken, there was no moment when the presentation began. The fact that I didn’t know he’d begun is a testament to how completely he was already engaged with us before he even stood up.

Add to that a sense that he was eager to tell us what was on his mind. (“Scoot closer!”)

And add to that that he looked at us and really saw us—one of the hardest things a presenter can do.

It all adds up to a presenter who is completely present before speaking a word. That’s captivating.

So number one: start your presentation before you ever stand up.

Begin inside your story

What would it be like if the first words out of your mouth were not an explanation or a commentary or an agenda? What if the first words out of your mouth were about a person and something that person did, said or felt?

When I suggest starting with a story, people readily agree that, if they were the listener, they’d like listening to a presenter who started like that.

But most people can’t imagine doing it themselves.

Often they simply don’t know how to turn their data into stories. There’s no question that turning data into stories can be a challenge. But it’s a learned skill like any other. This Executive Coaching Tip from 2005 has a three-step model to show you how to turn business information into compelling stories.

But even when people are able to turn their data into a story, they want to begin with a preface, an introduction, an explanation.

Again, this is not all bad. I’d rather listen to someone explain the context for a story, and then tell it, than listen to someone who can only talk data and bullet points.

But beginning “inside” a story, with something already happening, with no preamble, is compelling. Television shows have been using this technique for decades. They call it a “cold opening.” They know it works.

Drop us down inside your story, in the middle of a scene, and it’ll be hard for us to turn away.

How it sounds

Starting inside your story might sound like this:

“Robert is one of our Global Regulatory Managers and he has a serious problem.”

Or, “I talked with a customer in Georgia last week who chewed my ear off for 45 minutes.”

Or, “I was sitting across from a Chief Technology Officer and the first thing out of his mouth was that we’d never be able to deliver what we’d promised.”

I’m suggesting words like these be the first ones out of your mouth. If you started like that, wouldn’t you captivate your audience? I think you would! But you have to be willing to give up the security of explanations and prefaces and agendas.

On a related note, if you happen to be one of the many business people who have to tell the same story over and over (like Ken did), this Tip from 2007 has ideas about how to keep repeated material fresh.

If you want to captivate your audience—and who doesn’t?—the two behaviors to adopt are:

Start before you ever stand up.

Begin inside your story.

That second behavior—beginning inside your story—requires the most preparation: it usually takes time to find the story that will illustrate your point. But once you find the story, and then start your presentation before you ever stand up, you will exude The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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