Passion and the Pause

Recently I was invited to San Jose for two days to train and assess over 30 speakers at a conference of high-tech companies eager to hear what predictions these presenters had about the future of the industry. 

My overarching assessment of the group of five who presented to the entire assembly: unlike any other organization I have worked with in the past ten years, these people ALL possessed the one ingredient that makes the whole presentation process work— passion. The truth is, you can almost break all the ‘rules’ about proper delivery if in the end you deliver your message with true passion, and the five main presenters all did exactly that.

Peggy Noonan, the WSJ columnist and speechwriter for President Reagan, is fond of saying (speaking about the audience), “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  In the high-tech business, there are many people who know a great deal.  But their knowledge matters very little if they can’t convey what they know with a level of passion that drives people to sit up and listen.  

After all, it’s not likely that anybody in the audience is going to care more about your topic than you do, so to ensure that audiences come away interested and motivated to learn more, it’s incumbent upon the speaker to stretch to the point of almost going over the top with passion and enthusiasm for their topic.

So for this group, my suggestions for improvement would actually be for them to back off a little on their preparation. That might sound odd, but the reality is most everyone spent tens of hours practicing their material to the point that they knew their “scripts” by heart. And though it obviously returned great results, the approach we teach for successful delivery involves working less, rather than more.  In fact, that’s our Number One rule:

1)  If you’re working too hard, you’re doing it wrong.

The other two tenants of our teaching are:

2)  When you’re doing it right, it’s always a Win-Win for both the speaker and the audience, and

3)  People only Start listening when you Stop talking.

Getting back to Rule Number One, it is our long-held belief that the bedrock for presenting well is having a thoroughly comfortable presenter. A comfortable presenter doesn’t only make the audience feel comfortable, and thus conducive to new information uptake, but sets the stage for the presenter to let go with her passion, which, as I’ve said, is what it’s all about.

For the speaker to be as comfortable as possible, she must have learned two skills: the ability to engage in structured and controlled eye contact with individuals in the audience, and the understanding of how much and of what type of information one can bring onto the screen at any one time. With just these two skills (of the many we teach), the speaker frees himself of the huge, huge burdens that most carry to the platform. And with the incredibly lighter load our students bear, they find the ability to expend their excess energy in directed, meaningful output that audiences read as, that’s right, passion.

Unfortunately, most presenters (understandably) believe that their content is the most important aspect of the presentation process. Yet research proves this to be undeniably not true. The sad fact is that no matter how important your content might be, if you don’t both look good (confident & comfortable) and sound good (with the solid timbre of sincerely and expertise in your voice), nobody will take what you say seriously enough for you to have any impact. Concentrating on the content too often results in losing the big picture— people need to hear and see how much you care about what you say.

These presenters could also benefit from learning the other two rules, especially Rule Number Three, which is the rule that separates very good speakers from memorable ones.

Please understand this: Unless they’ve been trained differently, when people get up to speak before a group, the most important thing on their minds is always the next thing they’re going to say. Most speakers know that as long as they keep hearing words come out of their mouth, things will be fine.  But God help them if that stream ever stops— what if they can’t get it started again? What if they forget what they’re supposed to say? So they abate that fear by speaking constantly— one word after another, usually in appended phrases instead of full sentences— until (thank God!) they get to sit back down.

Once again, standard behavior works against efficient Knowledge Transfer. When audience members are forced to sit through a never-ending barrage of verbiage, it’s just like trying to read a college physics textbook that goes on for page after page without a paragraph break. After a short while, the brain surrenders and just shuts down, deciding to wait for the handout. 

In order for audiences to hear, and more importantly retain, what was said they need frequent and constant breaks in the monologue— the equivalent of the paragraph in written text. Next time you pick up a newspaper, note that the average number of sentences in a newspaper paragraph is 1.5. Short bursts of information and then a break.

Bill Clinton is the Master of the Pause. Barack Obama is a leading student. Neither John Kerry nor Al Gore has a clue about the value of the pause. Draw your own conclusions.