Speaker’s Beware: The Audience Is Always Right

I was a retailer in Houston for almost 20 years before becoming a keynote speaker. Our mindset in the retail world—“the customer is always right” that we borrowed from Nordstrom and Warren Buffet—has stayed with me even throughout my speaking career. Many times when a speaker delivers an uninspiring performance, they blame the audience’s lack of energy or sense of humor. In my experience, the key to a speaker’s success has always been audience engagement.

Here’s the thing: any speaker can do the easy shows, but it takes the true professional to pull through rough situations with a successful presentation.

Audience Engagement

Mastering Audience Engagement: Speaking at Connect Marketplace in Grapevine, Texas 2016 when the lights went out

Speaking Challenges

I’ve had my share of speaking challenges, such as the time a car hit a transformer and knocked out the electrical power across Grapevine, Texas, shutting done all power during my opening keynote to 3,000 people.

More recently, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a prestigious annual awards event honoring the top businesses in Houston. I was really excited and a little nervous at the same time. Close to 1000 people would be there celebrating their achievements. I wanted to give them the best that I had. The event planners gave me 45 minutes. I worked on the program shaving off and adding sections that would be entertaining to this particular audience.

The AV check was scheduled for 4:00 PM with reception doors opening at 5:00 and the event beginning at 6:00. I got there around 3:30, and the room looked fantastic. The team was ready for me, but they had made a last-minute decision to shorten the entire event, cutting my keynote down to 20 minutes. Who knew the Astros were going to be playing the 7th game of the World Series that night?

By 4:45 attendees began arriving to a jazz band and several open bars in the reception area. They were having a great time before the doors opened at 6:00.

6:30 came and it was Show Time!

I was sitting at the head table directly in front of the stage. When the first speaker began, I noticed that the room was a little frisky and the audience continued to carry on their table conversations. The chatter continued with the next presenter, and I thought, “Surely, they would get it out of their system by the time I got up to present.”

That did not happen…

I opened with a fun piece and they laughed loudly … and I kept on truckin’. The room chatter was so loud at times that I couldn’t hear myself think, so I decided to go with the flow and just have a good time. I think I did put my finger to my lips and shushed ’em a time or two. Also, I do remember telling them to “Listen, because this part is really good!” But the sweat was pouring off me!

When it was over, the event planner and her team came up to me, thanking me for a job well done. Needless to say, I was shocked! I replied, “Next year, you might think about getting a comedian.” They responded, “We did! We got you!” and added, “This happens every year, the audience is excited they won, but we watched your videos and knew you could handle them.”

As I walked out many people came up to me. They asked for my card and told me they loved the presentation, the slides, the music—the whole thing. You never know!

Audience Engagement Works

Thinking back on the night, the one thing that I have learned over the years is to never blame the audience. The speaker is responsible! It is the speaker’s job to take control of the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s the speaker’s job to rise to the occasion.

When things don’t go as planned, we speakers tend to blame the audience. We say things like, “they were left-brained engineers with no personality, or they were tired from the night before, or totally disengaged”

When we stop to examine the presentation and what happened. We often fail to think about what we could have done to make the performance more successful. The speaker is the one responsible! It is the speaker’s job to take control of the experience, even when it’s uncomfortable. As we say in retail, “The customer is always right!”

Every speaker has a bad day … or night. Hopefully, yours won’t involve a room of 1000 people or more!

Bored with Myself! Time to Let It Go

Do you ever get bored with YOURSELF? I was, and I decided it was time to “Let It Go” and to make some changes in my keynotes presentations and also in my day to day routine. Actually, I didn’t even know I was bored with myself until I attended  a keynote workshop in Denver. It was three days, working on our content and stories. Throughout those three days, I explored several opportunities for a fresh start by letting go of  bits, stories, and phrases in my keynotes.

Photo: Shutterstock

As 2017 approached, I continued this idea of letting go, and uncovered several habits that I have decided to STOP doing and shake things up. Here are a few things I have decided to leave behind as I keep on my mission to better myself, be more productive, and become happier in 2017.

  1. STOP SITTING ALL DAY!STOP SITTING all day and get up and moving! Because I work from my home I get to sit a lot! There are many days I start working at 8:00 a.m. and stay put in my chair until I get hungry and head to the kitchen. Recently, I read a fellow speaker, Audrey Thomas’s, blog called “Sit Less and Get More Done” and discovered that I can work standing in my kitchen! So now I stand an hour or two a day, but not all day. Research at the Texas A&M shows that productivity increases when people have the ability to sit and stand throughout the work day, and by trial and error they figure out what combination works best for them.
  2. STOP TALKING so much and start listening. A few weeks ago I had lunch with a close speakerStop Talking! friend, Crystal Washington. I was so excited to see her and tell her all the things I was doing! When I finally stopped talking and listened to Crystal, I actually started taking notes. When she shared her perspective on the business and things she was adding to her plan, I realized that she comes at things from a different perspective and her ideas are FRESH and unique from mine. She invigorated me and put some ideas into my mind which leads me to my next item.
  3. STOP HANGING OUT with people just like me. Look around at who you hang out with… do they STOP HANGING OUT!think just like you? I know it feels good to be with those people who are like you. They share the same beliefs on politics, listen to the same music – They nod when you are talking; they smile as they agree hearing your views. BUT!!! Here comes the big BUT: you will stagnate in this environment. Spending most of your time with people like you prevents growth and new ideas. Seek out people different from yourself and develop a growth mindset. And while you’re at it- try listening to news from a different viewpoint-
  4. STOP SLEEPING WITH THE PHONE charging on the bed stand.
    STOP SLEEPING WITH THE PHONE!Ouch!!! This one is hard. I had to get out my old clock radio. Here’s the issue. I hear the phone all night while I am sleeping. Ping, Ping, Ping and, if I have to get up at 2, 3, or 4 a.m., I immediately check my phone to see who texted me or sent an email. It’s crazy. Then my mind is turned on when it really needs to rest and turn off. Sleep is important- and getting a good night’s sleep where our bodies can restore it critical to our mental and physical health.  I took Simon Synek’s advice, and I now charge my phone in the kitchen and I am sleeping much better!
  5. STOP SAYING “YES” when I want to say “NO” (Justin Beiber says it all). STOP SAYING “YES” when I want to say “NO”I am going to limit my yeses to things I really want to do, and just say, “No, I can’t help you with that one.” This is the year I begin to do a better job with the things I actually want to do and honor those commitments by doing a great job. When my plate is full of too many yeses, I find that I do a less than stellar job on each undertaking.

We all have habits sometimes called our addictions in our day-to-day routine that may be getting in the way of achieving our goals and happiness. Maybe the challenges I am committed to stop doing are not your issues. But take a moment to do a self-assessment and come up with three to five things you are going to do differently this year, and as the wise Elsa once said—“Let it go!”

Sticky Stories Build Brands

I started on my journey to become a motivational speaker the summer of 1999.  I had just closed my last retail store and I was searching for my next career.  A friend of mine talked me into going to a local speaker’s meeting (National Speakers Association of Houston) and it just so happened that on that particular night a group of  newbie speakers were presenting their 15 minute graduation talk.  I was stunned…”Could someone actually get paid to do this?”  If so I wanted in!

I joined the local chapter that night and attended my  first NSA national conference in 2000.  I was impressed – The quality of the speakers at national was remarkable!  It was there that I first  heard the fabulous Jeannie Robertson tell hysterical stories about the Miss America Pageant, her husband LB (left brain) and her struggles with panty hose and I  realized I needed some stories. The problem was, I didn’t think I had a story to tell – and then I went to the Jazzfest, bumped into  Sting and the rest is history!

So, move over Elsa and Anna, because stories aren’t just for kids; they appeal to all ages. Especially in today’s world, stories are serious business! Your stories can be a powerful tool that can help you land your next job, move you into a leadership role, help you sell more or speak more, while building a memorable professional brand.

I have learned through the years that a great storyteller creates a lasting connection between their story and audience. We are hardwired to listen to and remember stories because stories have a way of resonating deep within us. Research tells us that fact, figures, and graphs engage a small area of the brain, but stories engage multiple brain regions that work together to build an emotional response. And when we combine hard data with a story, we are moved by intellect as well as emotions. Stories stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph can never do.

Stories make concepts and ideas come alive and stick. 

Stories that stick are remembered and repeated, so here are some tips for Telling Sticky Stories:

  • Make your story audience centric. It’s not about you—it’s about them. So, before you dive into developing the story ask yourself these questions: Who is my audience? What is my goal in telling this story? What’s in it for them? Why should they care? What’s my message? (Hint: Your message is what you want them to remember, and hopefully, these tips will help you do that!)
  • Add the “human touch,” because compelling stories are about people. Add characters to your story, drawing inspiration from people you know in your organizations or a mentor or someone else. Give your characters a voice and let them speak. Adding dialogue adds a real-life touch that makes your story come alive by showing us rather than telling us.
  • Get specific, paint a picture, and add detail with descriptions of time, place, and people. In my Sting Story I describe my friend Mary who has encouraged me to go to the Jazzfest with her like this… “If you ever met my friend Mary by day you might get the feeling you are with Mother Theresa but at night she turns into Lil Kim!”
  • Now it’s time for the conflict, which creates the tension and adds to the stickiness! Without some sort of conflict or challenge stories aren’t very interesting, actually they become quite boring and who wants that?
  • Keep your story short: I call it “Right and Tight.” They say that our attention span is that of a goldfish, so limit your story to between three and five minutes max.
  • Words matter. Write out your stories and look at the words you are using, and then cut out and rethink some of your words. Here is another example of less is more—rather than using several words to describe a person or situation think of one word that paints a better picture and may even tap into emotions. Instead of saying “Her nose was runny and she needed a tissue.” you might try  “She sneezed and grabbed a Kleenex.” or “He slowly strolled down the hall to the principal’s office” to He crept down to the Principal’s” office
  • Add the Spark—the purpose of a story is the lesson or the moment of truth. Oprah called it her “Aha,” and Akash Karia calls it the “Spark.” The spark is the wisdom your character receives to overcome the conflict! The spark ignites a change and, hopefully, that is the part of your story that sticks.
  • Practice—Practice—Practice! There is power in rehearsing, and if you rehearse enough, it will look so effortless your audience will believe you are a natural.
  • The most important point is for each of you to believe that stories convince, teach, influence, and evoke wonder. Use what you know and draw from it. Connect with your values and capture your truth from your experiences.

I am doing a storytelling workshop in Houston on April 22. Please email me if you have any interest just send me an email at [email protected]

Grow Your Executive Presence

In 2000 I  left the fashion industry behind and I began my new career as a  professional speaker.  Coming from a Ralph Lauren  inspired  fashion industry my first presentations were focused around professionalism  and dress. I soon found those subject very limiting and changed my area of expertise to  Change, Workplace Trends and Generations in the Workplace, and I put the professional presence presentations on the shelf.

Well…guess what?

Presence is back and it is stronger than ever under the name of Executive Presence.

Executive presence has a lot to do with the way you carry and convey yourself, including confidence, gravitas,  decisiveness, authenticity and the ability to communicate in a clear and  articulate manner. I realize this may seem  a bit shallow or “old school” – thinking that people might judge you as not being “executive material” just because you look, act or sound a certain way, but people do make judgments on an unconscious level all the time. If you look and act the part, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, not having executive presence can be a deal breaker.

In today’s competitive business environment, executive presence can make or break your ability to lead and influence others. Executive presence encourages people to seek you out and opens doors.Yet, with the acceptance of a more casual and laid-back workplace many people mistakenly underestimate its importance.

Leadership potential isn’t enough to launch men and women into the executive suite. Leadership roles are given to those who also look and act the part.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Executive presence is a combination of certain qualities that successful leaders exhibit. The truth is that you may have all the experience and qualifications of a leader, but without executive presence, advancement/success is not guaranteed.

I recent read a great book  EP by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. In it she states  that today as in the past, professionals are still judged on their presence (how they act, speak, and look) as well as their performance.

The good news is you don’t have to born with executive presence . If you have a bit of self-confidence and a willingness to be open to feedback and change the executive presence skills are learnable.  If you practice you can transform your ability to connect, engage, and inspire others.

Here are several tips on expanding your own executive presence.

1. Appearance and dress do matter.   Looking the part is the first step in getting your foot into the leadership door.   Executive Presence Guru, Sylvia Ann Hewlett says this about appearance,  “We found that leadership roles are given to those who look and act the part.“ Notice the “uniform” of your organization and make sure you are dressing to fit the look the part of one who leads rather that one who follows.  Focus on being well groomed, hair and nails count – Simple stylish clothes and accessories trump bold and flashy. Don’t wear wrinkled, soiled, or seams coming open clothing. Take time and invest in a career wardrobe that fits your body, your style, and your business environment.

2. Focus on building your character. The one word that continues to show up on every definition of executive presence is GRAVITAS-, which is the ability to project gravitas–confidence, poise under pressure, decisiveness, integrity, build your reputation, and show compassion.

3. Communication matters. Notice your communication style. Do you have empathy? Can you walk in another’s shoes and see their point of view?  Are you open and a good listener?  Are you clear in what you say? Do you communicate in a concise, compelling manor? Is your voice strong? And what about the non-verbal communication?  How are people reading your body language and do you have the ability to read other?

4. Are you inclusive?The other day I was waiting for a client in the lobby and I noticed a diverse group of people standing in a circle headed by an attractive man who appeared to be the group’s leader.  He was commanding,   energetic, and had many of the qualities mentioned above. I felt his executive presence, but I noticed that he was talking to only one other man in the group, ignoring the other six. Several were trying to listen and a few even tried to add something to the conversation, but the leader ignored their efforts.  He needed a lesson on inclusion. People who have executive presence are approachable and engaging, whether they’re talking with a new hire, receptionist, or the CEO. They are inclusive, they exude warmth and they show a genuine interest in those around them..

5. Here’s my favorite – Become a master of presentation skills – face to face, teleconferences, virtual meetings, and webinars – Never underestimate the value of a great theater! Practice, get a coach, and practice some more- Learn how to connect with your audience, tell stories (I teach my students make them “Right and Tight”) and let your authenticity and personality shine through – Yes, you need to video yourself  (If you need help in this area email me.)

6. Lastly you have to be open to receive feedback. Those who are oversensitive to feedback will not make the grade-We are talking “product development” here and YOU are the product.  There will be moments where improvement is necessary.

There is a very thin line between authenticity and conformity.  As you explore your executive presence and your ability to connect and lead, more of who you are will shine through. The first step is getting you in the leadership line.

The rest will follow