I witnessed an incredible, wildly successful transformation at a presentation recently. It was a pitch event, where entrepreneurs took the stage for 10 minutes to present their ideas to a group of venture capitalists sitting on a comfy sofa at stage left.
One by one, the entrepreneurs took the stage. None of them knew who to look at—us in the audience, or the VCs lounging to their side. All of them were uncomfortable with this strange dynamic, and it showed. Their confidence, to greater or lesser degrees, was shaken. Their position of authority wilted.
Confidence only comes with a lot of practice—especially with pitching. Tweet This Quote
But one bold entrepreneur blew that dynamic right out of the water.
He came onstage, introduced himself to the VCs at his side, then turned and introduced himself to us. He looked again at the VCs, then at us. Then, in what was obviously a decision to toss the ‘safe route’ and go big, he let out an infectious laugh, pulled the microphone from the stand, and said what we had all been thinking. This was a stupid arrangement. But what happened next was magic.
He walked over to the sofa, told a VC to slide over, and sat down with as much flourish as a hiker who had just spent a day on the trail. He threw his arm over the back of the sofa, as if he were about to snuggle with the clearly surprised VC. And when he launched into his presentation, it was with the demeanor of having a conversation while watching TV with friends.
The uncomfortable distance between himself and the VC judges had evaporated. The audience loved the shattered barrier between the ‘judges’ and the ‘judged.’ And the VCs, no longer able to regard the entrepreneur from a comfortable distance, adopted their new roles as friends with obvious relish. This entrepreneur won the pitch competition.
When pitching, you need to shatter the barrier between the ‘judges’ and the ‘judged.’ Tweet This Quote
When you’re listening to a presentation, you’re naturally thrust into the position of judge. You sit back, cross your arms, cock your head, and evaluate. You’re not the creator, but the critic.
If you’re onstage, this dynamic is unnerving. Sure, you may get laughs and applause if you nail a point. But more often than not, you get stony silence. You are in the beta role, trying to appease the alpha judges in the audience. Turning this all on its head is as simple as stripping the audience of their judge role, and forcing them to co-create with you.
But simple doesn’t mean easy. The audience will not relinquish its role as judge willingly. If you try to break the barrier, and fail, you’ll look even more like the beta appeaser.
Below are a few techniques I’ve found that can break the frame quite easily. They’ll enable the crowd to slowly uncross their arms, lean forward, and start to enjoy their new role as collaborators.
1. Plant a friend in the audience
Your audience acts as a herd. If they see one person stand up and interact with you, they’ll feel more comfortable following that lead.
I’ve often asked friends (or the event organizer whom I’ve gotten to know) to take a question I shout out. What’s more, I ask them to add a snappy retort or challenge along with their answer—to put me on the spot. This game of ‘make the speaker squirm’ is one the audience loves. They instantly soften up, and feel enabled to get in on the game. The next time I ask a question, the arms shoot up to respond.
If you have expert content to cover in your talk, there’s a high risk your audience will go numb—surprise them. Tweet This Quote
2. Toss a book
If you have ‘expert’ content to cover in your talk, there’s a high risk your audience will go numb. Thinking is hard, and judging you a professorial bore is all too easy. That’s why I bring along a few of my books.
When I need to talk ‘hard’ stuff, I begin by speaking for about a minute. Then, I pause and look at the audience. I ask if anyone can play back what I just said. My planted friend (see above) raises her hand and gives me the answer. I shout “Congratulations!” and throw a book at her—usually with the sort of comic bad aim that gets an instant laugh.
In a flash, my audience has gone from being judges to being game show contestants. They shout, they hoot, they jump up to answer my next question. They’ll do anything to get that next book I toss out.
3. Fly without a net
We’ve all seen the movie where the hero needs to make a canned speech in front of a tough crowd. He mumbles, fumbles with his script, and completely deflates in front of the mic.
Then, in a palpable turn, he crumples up the script, and tells the audience he can’t do the ‘canned’ version—he needs to say what he means. He launches into a heartfelt talk, completely unscripted, and wins the day.
Instead of fumbling with an imperfect situation, learn how to improvise. Tweet This Quote
This is exactly what the entrepreneur did at the beginning of this story. He took a moment to regard his impossible situation, chuckled at the insanity of it all, and dove headfirst into an entirely new (and probably unpracticed) storytelling mode. The audience ate it up.
I’ve spoken at events where the microphone didn’t work. I’ve spoken at events where the slideshow didn’t work. I’ve spoken at events where I wasn’t on a podium, and the back rows couldn’t see me. Instead of fumbling with an imperfect situation, I improvised.
For example, instead of letting the tech folks fiddle with the projector, I asked them to simply shut it off. Then, I asked the audience if it would be OK if I just freestyled without slides.
Usually, they shout their assent. They know I’ve just upped the degree of difficulty and accepted the challenge of flying without a net. I could fail spectacularly, which would make for terrific entertainment. Or I could soar, which would make this unforgettable.
The more you rehearse your pitch, the more comfortable you feel—and the more you can improvise. Tweet This Quote
Each of these techniques takes confidence to pull off—and confidence only comes with practice. When I speak, I know my material inside out. I’ve rehearsed dozens of times. I’ve found that the more I rehearse, the more comfortable I feel. The more comfortable I feel, the more I can improvise.
So, to borrow a phrase from music, take the time learning how to play the scales, modes, and arpeggios. Practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way you’ll be able to play free form jazz like a master. Then, get the audience to play along.
Learn more about how to craft Your Ultimate Speech.