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How to Engage the Toughest Audience

I come from a long line of great storytellers.  As a child, I remember sitting around the table with my brother and my cousins listening to my grandparents tell incredible stories of their lives. I was mesmerized by every detail. And there was always an important lesson to be learned from each one.

My Grandpa Carey was the prankster of the family, and all of his stories erupted in laughter (partly due to his world-famous nose snort). His gregarious and jovial personality would light up a room.  And it didn’t matter if any of us had heard a story before, when Grandpa Carey started talking, he drew a crowd.  He passed that trait onto all of his daughters, making our holidays and family gatherings quite the events.

Grandpa’s middle daughter, my mother, has engaged audiences as an educator at every level from preschool to college. When I was little, she was often asked to be a storyteller at our local library or bookstore. Little children (me included) were captivated by her animated voices and lively gestures that brought books to life. She continues to share this gift today with her grandchildren.

My PapPaw Gerard was a bit more serious in his delivery and wanted to make sure that we always knew where we came from – and how hard others had worked so that each generation could have more than the previous one. His sense of pride, accomplishments, and love for his family seemed to soften the hard lines of his life. PapPaw’s stories tied all of us together and made us feel that we were all part of something bigger.

My father (PapPaw’s middle son) always has a story to illustrate a life lesson. The hardest-working person I know, my dad’s stories offer priceless insights and experience; and I often recall his stories when it’s time to make an important decision of my own.

A good mix of both my father and my mother, I pride myself in engaging my children with fun stories that always offer a lesson or two as well.  And as a professional speaker coach, I am constantly aware of how stories evoke emotion in audiences. The stories – which illustrate the important information in a presentation – are what get remembered.  The stories get retold and passed down to other generations.

It should have come as no surprise, then, when I witnessed my seven-year-old son embracing his heritage while reading to his three-year-old sister. Still, I watched from across the room with enormous pride.  He was using inflection to emphasize important words at the right time.  He was varying his tone, pitch, and volume to highlight the story’s characters and important points.  And I have to brag that his enunciation was impeccable.

As a result, his audience (the world’s cutest little sister) was fully engaged.  She was intensely focused on the story and captivated by his every word.

That’s when it hit me:  what a fantastic way to practice your presentation skills!

Whether you are delivering a keynote seminar to 500 people, pitching a new product to a customer, or relaying a story to a group of friends — everyone can use a little help perfecting their presentations.

Grab a child, open a book, and get creative.  I’m a big fan of Dr. Seuss books because of their rhythm.  (And you earn bonus points in our house for reading Fox in Socks without getting tongue-tied.)  When children make up your audience, you can practice proper articulation and pronunciation as part of your act – without feeling silly. Vary your pitch. Increase your volume and pick up the pace during exciting parts; slow down and speak softly during meaningful parts. Try things differently during the next story to see if your variations elicit a different response.  Have fun practicing, while preparing for those future presentations. Practice makes perfect.

Practice purposeful pauses.  Even with the most polished speakers, I see frequent missed opportunities to transfer important messages to audiences. When you are delivering information, you must remember that the audience needs time to hear it, understand it, and absorb it. If you don’t allow a moment for that to happen, your message – the one you spent hours preparing — will be missed. Your audience might be hearing the information for the first time, even if it’s the 100th time you are delivering it. Pause. Really pause. It will feel awkward at first, but a purposeful pause is the most important lesson I can relay to my clients.

Engage your audience. Reading to children is a powerful way to practice connecting with your toughest audiences. You have to work hard to keep them involved. Make eye contact. Smile. Include them in the story. I teach my speaker clients to address one person in the audience when delivering an important point.  At that moment, the entire audience is focused on that intimate conversation; and as a result, everyone is listening.

With any skill, the more you practice new and different approaches, the more advanced you become.  Reading to children is a fun way to hone the art of presenting.  More importantly, you might just inspire the next generation of storytellers.

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Michelle Joyce manages some of the country’s best speakers and has a passion for connecting the right presenter to the right audience. As a speaker coach and consultant, her programs help individuals create stronger, more attractive brands; develop relevant seminar content and stories; polish their presentation skills; and generate more awareness for their products and services. You can reach her directly at MichelleJoyce.com or email michelle(at)michellejoyce.com.