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Stephen Walker

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How to make people listen


Stephen Walker talks us through the gentle art of speaking in public, the importance of rapport and points out a few basics of successful verbal communication.

You don’t get very far in the training sector without having to stand up and talk to someone. Whether you are doing an internal meeting to promote a course of action, doing a sales pitch to a would-be client or delivering some training, your success depends on your ability to make people listen.

The second thing you have to do is get your point across so your audience understands. The trouble is most people put public speaking as the number one fear in their life, before networking and dying.
"Speak in that semi-
intimate manner that you would in a cosy fireside chat. Bill Clinton is an expert at this; he only ever speaks to one person at a time."
Like most things that are outside your comfort zone, your discomfort is assuaged with some insight, some practice and some motivation. I hope you find this article of value and I am always prepared to deliver this to any audience.


Rapport is the conduit that connects you to your audience: the conduit through which your words will flow. If you do not develop rapport, your audience is not going to hear your fine words.
The first thing to do is to know your audience. Make sure the organiser of the event tells you who will be there. Get there early and mingle with the audience. Talk to a few people and strike up an acquaintanceship. It is always good to see a familiar face in an audience.
When you deliver then speak as if you are just speaking to one person. Speak in that semi-intimate manner that you would in a cosy fireside chat. Bill Clinton is an expert at this; he only ever speaks to one person at a time.
Finally, you must make an emotional connection with the audience. Demonstrate you understand and empathise with them. Show your knowledge is relevant to their lives because you understand their lives.

Mantle of an expert

Your audience wants to listen to you. You have something important to say, they believe. You have to adopt the mantle of an expert. I don’t mean be a pompous ass! Look at some of Steve Job’s presentations. He wasn’t pompous, very grand sometimes, but he always came across as an expert.
An expert would be confident and so must you be. Control those nerves and know your content. Whatever you do, don’t apologise for your delivery, layout or content. Keep up the appearance of an expert.


It is usually sensible to lay out for the audience the structure of what you are going to say. That way they have a roadmap of the session and you are showing that you care they understand the journey you are taking them on.
Refer to the structure throughout your presentation. Not constantly but at points of change, perhaps when going from an introduction to a scenario, indicate the nature of the information is changing. Take the audience on the journey with you.
Build a sensible structure. Most presentations have an inherent structure by way of the content. Make the structure explicit so everyone knows what to expect, where he or she has been and what is coming next.

Eye contact


Every human knows about eye contact. Let me be clearer: I mean iris to iris, looking into the iris of the person. People you trust will hold your gaze and look you in the eye. The audience understands you have to look at them all, whether that be six or six hundred. Make eye contact with every single person in the audience.


A gesture, body language, is a key part of your communication toolkit. What your body says must be congruent with your words or the audience is confused at best, marks you as an inexpert fool at worst.
Your gestures need to be relevant to the meaning of your words at the time. Don’t talk about a smooth landing and have your hand describe a descending spiral. Unless, that is, you mean to be humorous!
Don’t forget, while you are trying to establish a cosy fireside chat-like rapport, in fact you may be some distance from the audience. Gestures need to be reasonably expansive to be noticed. The bigger the audience the bigger the gesture has to be.


It is unlikely you can speak too slowly for the audience. I have not seen anyone in presentation workshops who doesn’t need to slow down when they start. Fast speech is a sign of nervousness while slow speech is a sign of authority, power and confidence. Be sure to vary the pitch and pace of your voice. A monotone delivery at a fixed pace will send most people to sleep.
The presenter's secret weapon is the pause. When you pause, people have the time to catch up, to finish processing what you have said so far. They think the pause is deliberate and serves to emphasise the importance of what you say next.
So if you can’t think what to say next, just pause. Don’t then say, "Sorry I forgot where I was going with that." Just carry on.


Telling jokes is a skill many people think they have, but sadly, the joke is on them. If you are not confident of your joke telling ability then don’t do it.
If you do attempt a joke, make it relevant to the audience not just a throwaway line. To learn how to tell jokes watch comedians with a live audience. They study the audience carefully to see just when to deliver the next punch line, timing is all.


PowerPoint and the many similar products are greatly abused: hands up everyone who has been to a presentation where the speaker read out the slide word for word. It is agonising.
You don’t put your speaker’s notes on the screen. You put pictures that help to convey your meaning. When you show a new slide, give your audience a few seconds to assimilate the content. They are not listening to you so shut up!
Don’t overload the slide with content. The chances are the people at the back can’t see anyway and you will lose people’s attention. Use your slides to support what you are saying, not to repeat or replace your words.


Getting your point across is something we all have to do in our life. Whether you are asking for a pay rise (remember those?), delivering information or explaining about your new sexy Facebook friend, your ability to communicate affects the outcomes of your life.
You have to be organised to communicate clearly. You must know your subject. You must make what you are saying relevant to your audience.
Above all else, you must build rapport. I attended a Chamber of Commerce Christmas dinner some while ago and the speaker was the Chairman of a new town development agency. Most people in the audience did not want a new town built on their green and pleasant land. He spoke for 45 minutes, 35 of which was establishing rapport. We eventually laughed at what he said and he delivered his speech. He worked hard for his dinner that day.
Are you ready to speak for your supper?
Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop the management of motivation to inspire greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blog. His new site Wetutor helps people communicate through their written English.


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