Unlearning presenting

In my last post I wrote about conversational presenting. Conversational presenting builds on the skills most of us already have and use in normal day-to-day conversations. But for many of us, conversational presenting is hard. That used to be the case for me. I was in Toastmasters for many years and developed a formal style of public speaking. I planned my vocal variety, my body language and my rhetorical flourishes. And it wasn’t really me. Nor was I connecting with my audience – they were a backdrop for my performance.

With the help of a great coach, I learnt about being myself in front of the audience and seeing and engaging with individuals in the audience. That’s conversational presenting.

However, it took time and effort to change my style. Every time I got up to speak it was a trigger to go into my “public speaking mode”. It was a hard habit to break.

Every so often, we have experienced presenters on our courses who also go into “public speaking mode” as soon as they get up. They morph into somebody else and start speechifying. Often they have a background in Toastmasters or debating.

If you can recognise yourself in these descriptions, you can break this habit.

  1. Rehearse your presentation sitting down. It’s much harder to speechify when you’re sitting down. Sitting won’t trigger your public speaking mode. Sitting in your seat will have you talking to the individual people in your audience, as if you were having a conversation.
  2. Once you’ve got the feel of the way that you were presenting when you were sitting down, stand up, but stay presenting in the same style. To make it easier to stay in the conversational style, make this transition half-way through the presentation. If you feel yourself starting to speechify again, sit down again and get back into conversational style and then try again.
  3. When you’re presenting for real, speak as if you were in your seat.

When you first start doing this you may feel that you are being too low-key and relaxed in your style. It’s normal to feel like this because you’re making a big break from your old style. Ask for feedback from several trusted friends about whether your new style is appropriate.

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  1. Olivia, it bothers me how many Toastmasters perform for their audience instead of talking to them.

    Last night I was invited to an “Advanced” Toastmasters club. I was asked to make a brief comment on a speech from a “Distinguished Toastmaster.”

    I said, sincerely, that she’d be a fine theater performer — but that she’d have a stronger connection to the audience if she spoke with us as though we were all sitting down over coffee.

    But the next evaluator disagreed with me. He said she *was* over the top — but he believed in had the right effect.

    And what effect would that be? Alienating the audience?

    Olivia, thanks for your tips. I’m going to carefully avoid the temptation to perform rather than to connect. This “communication disease” is spreading like cancer in Toastmasters — with equally fatal results.

    • I don’t think it’s spreading like a cancer. I imagine it’s always been there – it certainly was when I started in Toastmasters 20 years ago. I think it’s a natural product of the Toastmaster process.

  2. I believe this is still relevant.

    As having competed at several levels in the TM world, I have fallen into the ‘performer trap’. It works great at TM, I believe in part as an example of someone excelling at speaking in public without fear.

    Outside of TM the goals drastically change. If you want to sell someone, typically a performance is sniffed out rather quickly. Same with presentations to senior management and other corporate audiences.

    People want to be entertained at a certain level, but not at the cost of the message.


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