As audience members in a presentation, one of the things we look for is a connection with the speaker. And one of the things that impacts that connection is when the presenter throws out a generalisation about a topic, and confidently asserts something that isn’t true for us: either literally, or that doesn’t fit with our values or beliefs. You could think of it like this, seen through the lens of audience connection: ‘your truth’ or ‘universal truth’.
Whether the speaker’s assertion is a literal or beliefs trigger for us, it can cause a problem; and it happens surprisingly often.
Giveaway phrases include:
“We all know that…” – do we?
“It’s obvious that…” – is it?
“We’ve all felt/done/heard… – have we?
You get the picture. Even the most throwaway line can throw up a barrier between speaker and audience. If I, as an audience member, hear something and instantly think “you’re not talking to me”, I disconnect. It’s then often harder to get me back onside. And the speaker’s usually oblivious to it happening.
This is of course less likely to happen at events where speaker and audience really are “on the same page” …of the bible for example. Or a climate change rally where everyone is on the same side. If every single person in the audience is a believer, then there’s less likely to be an issue than with a mixed audience. But it’s still worth considering this: what might I habitually say that’s jarring for some audience members, because that ‘truth’ doesn’t apply to them?
Now we could go down a rabbit hole about the topic of truth, and I don’t want to get into an esoteric discussion here. So to keep things simple, my definition of the differences between my truth and universal truth would be this:
“My truth” is personal, relative truth. “Universal truth” is true for all of us in every situation.
Some examples of personal truths
“Thank God it’s Friday! Bet you’re counting down the hours to the weekend.” (I work on Saturdays – and love my work – so no.)
“Conflict at work is disastrous for morale.” (Probably, but not always – it can lead to a breakthrough.)
“Strong eye contact is important to create trust.” (It depends.) Cultural references can be problematic.Public speaking coaches often mention using eye contact to create trust. But this isn’t universal of course: depending on your culture, avoiding eye contact can be seen either as polite and respectful, or shifty and untrustworthy.
Examples of universal truths
All human beings will die.
Our thoughts create our experiences.
We don’t experience reality directly, it’s always filtered.
Now it could be that the speaker making the sweeping generalisation doesn’t know or doesn’t care, and I’m not their target market. They’re selling an idea, service or product, and it’s not to me. But if I’m sitting in that presentation, I believe that it’s the speaker’s responsibility to engage me as possible. Good public speaking is, after all, about the audience. (Now there’s an example of a personal “my truth”: I believe this statement, and it’s one of the tenets I choose to create my work around. But there are plenty of people who’d disagree with me!)
Why do “my truth” moments happen when we’re speaking? Usually for two reasons:
- We believe this assertion ourselves, and have never questioned it, or thought we needed to. Or…
- We’re in a state of flow, aiming for an inclusive audience experience. We see them as one group, we’re on common ground…so it slips in by accident
However, it’s important to remember that a group is made up of individuals, each with their own strong mental models or maps. We all think differently – sometimes nuanced, sometimes radically. There’s a Cuban proverb you may know, which I really like:
Listening looks easy but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.
Listening? Hang on, we’re discussing presenting. Absolutely…and part of our role as presenters is actually listening to our audience, getting feedback and monitoring what’s happening in real time. We’re having a virtual conversation at the very least, if our talk isn’t interactive. So even if we’re giving a keynote presentation, we’re still listening to our audience as it unfolds. Does that resonate with you?
So if it’s usually not a conscious choice on the speaker’s part to create that disconnect, let’s bring these two types of ‘truth’ to our mental foreground and examine them. After all, why disconnect from sections of our audience – even temporarily – if we can avoid it?
Some options to try
It’s asking too much to vet and monitor everything that comes out of our mouths – unless we’re reading a speech, in which case we have no excuse. What we can do is:
- Check in with our main, chunky assertions: what we believe to be true; and I’m talking about the more abstract aspects of our presentation here, not the data or facts. I have a belief (here comes another personal truth) that good public speaking involves solid thinking time on the part of the presenter: we need to think through our arguments and possible counter-arguments. Imagine a bright, expert audience challenging you on your main points. Would your assertions stand up to that scrutiny? At the very least, we should be able to consider the opposite argument to our own premise.
- Take care with our examples. This is where real trouble can start. Any example needs to be considered from different angles and audience perspectives. Don’t assume anything.
- Be comfortable with using language like “I don’t know about you, but I’ve found…” or “most of us have dealt with X…and if you haven’t, Y…”. Or “you may have experienced this…”. Some people may disagree with me about this type of language, believing it to be wishy-washy. And certainly we do need to be careful: poorly used, words like “most” or “may” run the danger of appearing uncertain or hedging our bets. But unless you know for a fact that your whole audience is on board with a ‘universal truth’ scenario, these sentences are safe and inclusive, and don’t leave anyone out.
It’s about not being lazy or complacent in our content preparation or delivery.
Taking some time to think through possible disconnecting ‘truths’ in our presentations can make all the difference in audience connection and engagement. Even a few minutes will help.
If this topic interests you, you might like to read an article I wrote a few years ago on 12 Essential Truths About Public Speaking, Life and Growth. See if you believe that these 12 Essentials are my truths, or universal principles! Or to get another perspective, here’s a post from psychologist and CBT therapist Mandy Kloppers on Lifehack.org
Best wishes with your presentations.