Is Presenting a Conversation or a Performance?

Dialogue Bubble – digitalart

What’s your take on presenting: conversation or performance? Let me tell you about an experience I had recently. I went to a networking breakfast in the city, on a dark, wintry Monday morning: it was hard to get out of bed, but I was looking forward to the event because I enjoy meeting new people, and the guest speaker sounded good. He was someone who’d pushed himself to the limits in adventure travel, even seen death. A man whose tales of leadership would surely be inspiring and interesting.

Yet from the moment he came onto the stage and began his 40 minute keynote, I found myself disconnecting from his story. The reason?

The adventurer mentally pressed “play” and he was off. The rise and fall of his speech cadence sounded highly similar to reading a bedtime story to a small child – for the entire 40 minute talk. I’d guess that every single word had been memorised and polished to a nub. Now that’s hard to do…it takes a lot of practice (I used to memorise competition speeches for Rostrum and Toastmasters and remember it well). His keynote was an impressive performance. But it was sheer performance.

And on that dark, rainy morning, I was uncomfortable, and remained that way for the entire speech; even in the most intense parts of his speech, remaining relatively unmoved. Why? Because I was looking for a human connection with the speaker; a sense that he was having a conversation with me as a member of his audience, so that I could share in his story as it unfolded. I never felt invited into his world; indeed, I got the sense that I might not have been there and the tape would just have kept running.

Then in the brief Q and A which followed, he reverted to his normal conversational speaking style, and that was a relief.

Now perhaps I’m more sensitive to this than most, given what I do. However a couple of people mentioned his style to me as we gathered our coats to leave, so I wasn’t alone.

Here’s what I believe about presenting to a group: if your vocal or physical style is significantly different to who you are when you interact normally, you’re setting yourself up for a disconnected, wary audience. Think of how you react when you’re in the audience – don’t you just want the speaker to have a conversation with you? Sure, there is an element of performance in that you need to be slightly “larger than life” speaking to a group than you are one-on-one (and that intention expands as the audience size expands). But fundamentally you’ll create a true connection with your audience if you speak to them normally, conversationally, and they’ll be infinitely more receptive to your message.

So what’s your take: conversation or performance? Please feel free to comment below, I’d love to know what you think.


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Comments (2)

  • Irma Zimmermann Reply

    Hi Sarah,

    Great article and what a shame you had to get up up early to be dis-engaged. My Social Media Tips are: Be Helpful > Be present > Be Social > Be Yourself > Share the Love. I would imagine there are similarities between conducting a presentation, engaging with ones audience on Social Media platforms and Blogging? Would love to share these thoughts with you, perhaps over a coffee someday ツ

    I read this article this morning by Mark Schaefer which I thought I’d share. It’s tiitled,: “Please. Make me feel something”


    at 10:48 am
    • Sarah Denholm Reply

      Thanks Irma, and I like your Tips: there are certainly similarities between the 3 platforms, and authenticity, being yourself, is of course a big one. A coffee sounds great: will be in touch. Thanks for the link to the Schaefer article, too: I would agree with what he says about emotion being vital for attention and attraction from an audience. The only difference I’d mention is that for advertising, emotion is the the most important aspect to grab your audience immediately, but in presentations, you need a mix of the emotional and the logical or you lose some of the audience. Emotion always wins though, just the way we’re wired!

      at 3:52 pm

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