Are you ready for the third era in presenting?

AudienceThere have been three distinct eras of public speaking and presenting. They are all still present today, but at different levels of maturity. The third era – the era of the audience – is going to be challenging for most presenters and public speakers. It requires a new attitude. But first let’s review the first two eras of presenting and public speaking.

The era of the orator

Heyday: From ancient times to 1990s.

In this era every speech is a performance. Each sentence is carefully crafted and the speech taps into a vast repertoire of rhetorical techniques. I first learnt public speaking in Toastmasters and I learnt to speak this way – paying attention to my words, my vocal variety and body language. In one of my first posts on this blog, I described how I had to unlearn this style of presenting so that I could connect better with the audience.

Politicians and other public figures such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and now Barack Obama are classic examples of orators.

The era of the slide

Heyday: From 1990s to the future

The era of the slide began in the 1960s with the projection of 35mm slides on a slide carousel, but it didn’t take off until PowerPoint came on the scene. The era of the slide still has a way to go before maturity:

  1. Most people still consider the speaker to the best visual aid and the slides are simply an adjunct, rather than an integral part of the total presentation experience. Generally we’re still at the “radio with pictures” stage rather than the integrated “TV” stage.
  2. Slide design, despite the best efforts of Cliff Atkinson, Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte and many others, is mostly deplorable or non-existent.

Stand-out examples of “era of the slide” presentations are TED presentations and Steve Jobs presentations.

The era of the audience

Heyday: From 2000s to the future

The birth of the era of the audience has been brewing for a long time. It’s partly descended from the era of the orator and the era of the slide, but there’s been other significant influences:

1. Open Space technology

Open Space is a way of meeting in small to large groups where the agenda is co-created and developed by the participants. I first saw Open Space Technology in action during the 1990s and was blown away with the brilliance, creativity and excitement that it generated. No longer did one person have to be in charge. Nowadays the unconference movement is a great example of open space technology at work.

2. The Art of Facilitation

Facilitation as a term was coined in 1950. A skilled facilitator can lead a group to discuss issues and make their own decisions. I trained as a facilitator in the 1990s and it had a huge influence in my attitude and practice as a presenter. No longer was there this dividing line between me and the audience. It was me with a group of people who each had a contribution to make.

3. Audience expectations

Audiences are expecting a more participatory role in presentations, just as they do as citizens and consumers. The development of participatory democracy, consumer activism, mass content creation, the backchannel and the advent of Generation Y all mean that many audiences are no longer content to just sit passively listening to a monologue.

Many presenters and public speakers are adapting to this era. Gary Vaynerchuck spoke for 10 minutes in front of an audience of 1,000s at SXSW 2010 and then opened up his keynote presentation to questions. Within seconds long lines had formed behind the two audience microphones. The rest of his presentation was a fascinating mixture of honest advice, guidance, and challenge in response to the questions he was asked.

Cliff Atkinson’s most recent book The Backchannel is ostensibly about managing the social media backchannel. But it goes much deeper – Cliff starts to outline the shift in attitude that presenters will need to take on to survive in the era of the audience. Will you be ready?

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  1. Right on, Olivia. And it’s about time. :-)

  2. Hi Olivia, I thought your distinction between the 3 eras of presenting was very insightful. However, do you have any steps for presenters to take to adapt? You hinted that a new attitude is required and I would love for you to explain further in a future post. Cheers.

  3. I like the eras you have defined, and completely agree. However, I think that the ‘era of the audience’ should be approached with caution. Yes, audiences now want a reason to listen, and they want to hear about the topics that are relevant to them. I fundamentally agree that presenters and speakers should aim to address these desires.

    Yet there are two main issues with this approach:

    1) No two people will want exactly the same information
    2) If the audience choose the content, valuable messages can be left out.

    Obviously this is a matter of balance, and different types of presentations will require different attitudes. And while all presentations should be tailored as much as possible towards the audience, relinquishing all control could defeat the object of delivering the presentation in the first place!

    • Hi Jessica
      And I completely agree with you! Yes, there’s a balance to be struck, and you as the presenter are the leader. I’ll explore this issue more in a future post.

  4. Ready, willing, and able for the third era in presenting!

    Coincidentally, at the end of a two-day leadership gig on Wednesday, two participants approached me separately to share their observations on my ability to engage the group over the course of two days. While it wasn’t an overt objective of the session, they were struck by the way in which I was able to maintain their attention and encourage them to think versus so many other sessions driven by PowerPoint slides and lackluster presenters which they have endured in the past. These two participants underscored your point perfectly. We, as presenters, have the ability to be the most important and impactful ‘visual aid’…or not.

    One of the leaders in the session said he realized, as a result of observing me, why his own team meetings were so low in engagement and participation. His path forward: more targeted, thought-provoking questions, more solicitation of opinions and reactions from the audience, a more intentional use of his own tone of voice, body language, and charisma, and less emphasis on bullets and slides. Love it!

    • Hi Ken
      Congratulations on the feedback that you got on your session. Feels pretty good to get that feedback!

      And thank you sharing how you did that. The critical part of what you’ve said is “encourage them to think”. That’s what we should be doing throughout our presentations.

      • Thanks, Olivia. I always (and unfortunately that’s a rarity these days) enjoy your blog, insights, and perspective.

        Your entry on the third era in presenting inspired me to add my own two cents in my latest blog entry:

        While it’s not fresh information to us, given what I see out there, it’s old information that has not been heard or heeded by so many presenters. Sad, but true. As a bright spot in that unfortunate situation, I guess you and I will always have a job.


        • Hi Ken
          Thank you very much for your comments on my writing – I really appreciate that.
          And I’m glad that I inspired you in your writing – I’m often inspired by others. The main message of your post seems to be increase your use of body language and tone of voice to make your presentation more engaging and your message more easily understood. I agree with that point, but only in moderation. This is because I’ve seen many people overdo body language and tone of voice at the expense of quality content – often because of their belief in the 55-38-7 figures that you quote. I’ve deconstructed those figures here:


          • I love the breakdown, and will definitely refer to it in the future. I’ve recommended your website to participants. It’s been a useful way for people to get grounding and insight.

            As far as body and tone, I completely agree with you and the adage: Everything in Moderation. My intent in working with presenters is to help them be more authentically themselves vs. becoming some version of a ‘Presenter/Actor’. What I’ve found is that by getting people to swing the pendulum a bit to the extreme in terms of their natural inclinations (or limitations, as the case may be), they quickly come back to the balanced middle for themselves.

            Keep those posts coming, Olivia! You have a big fan and kindred spirit in me.


  5. Olivia,
    I especially appreciate your outlining the ERAs of Public Speaking…Ancient-thru-1990s-thru Present. I’m blown away (negatively) by Speakers that use the old tried-and-true Lecture/Powerpoint/Windbag style. As Speakers, we are to inform, entertain, and engage our audiences. We do that by helping the audience to become responsible for their own interactive leadership. We facilitate the experience by giving them what THEY want rather than bu what WE want…

    • Hi there,
      Having the focus on what the audience wants rather then solely on what you want as a speaker is definitely a key part of the era of the audience.

  6. Great post, Olivia! Your input on audience expectations is very enlightening. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks, Olivia, I had never thought about it like this.

    I learned something from your Post – and that’s a good thing!

  8. So, I find this somewhat less compelling than some of the others, and here’s why: My sense is that this only works as a framework if you think about speech giving and speech givers and audiences somewhat narrowly. Have you ever been in a black baptist church for the sermon (a particular type of speech)? Heard the call and response and then the choir and the testifying? There is an extraordinary back and forth that has been going on in one way of another for centuries. Snake oil salesmen of one stripe or another have been beguiling audiences with all sorts of props for centuries as well. The great orators of the past (and present) were able to conjure compelling images without physical aids. But even speeches in more conventional business contexts, the best speeches are designed to engage the audience through humor and/or the rhetoric, or the moral or other story line. And some of the most engaged audiences I have ever seen were absolutely silent because they were completely enmeshed in the story and the moment. I have seen terrible speeches cause great audience eruptions because the audience cared little for the words but only for the message or messenger.

    I do think it’s true that there are many more ways now to engage an audience but I don’t know that this is the difference that makes a difference. What I am seeing is how the spread of quick and easy access to speech causes it to be fleeting and vulnerable to manipulation and to de-contextualization, so that it is much harder for a speech to stand on its own or to have an enduring impact, regardless of the immediate audience reaction.

    In one sense I agree with you. This era is one where the audience is newly empowered, so one needs to find ways to keep it engaged. But, the “captive” audience is becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly the audience has a “clicker” or a “mouse” — or an iPhone or Blackberry and you may or may not get much of a chance to get your message across. You are competing for attention from strong centripetal forces every time you pause to breath or put a period on a sentence. As such, speeches present special challenges.

    In a way, speeches are increasingly more important now as symbolic actions than they are as messaging platforms. Except in showcases like TED, they must compete with and/or be integrated with far broader set of messaging vehicles, approaches and platforms. There must be a good reason to give a speech rather than just issuing a press release or using some other messaging platform, and that good reason needs to be leveraged.

    And then of course, one needs to be able to maintain the integrity of the speech, which will be spliced and diced and recast by millions of web-empowered editors or interpreted through unexpected lenses from across the globe and across many different media. Or simply falsified and misrepresented by the likes of Fox News.

    Interesting times indeed. Thanks for your thoughts on all this.

  9. Hi Jon
    Thank you for the value that you’ve added with your thoughts. You’ve added nuance to my broad-brush approach!

  10. Hi Olivia
    Just came over from John Watkis’s blog where he discusses this post. Thought I’d take a read of your full post.
    “Audiences are expecting a more participatory role in presentations” – couldn’t agree more and my latest post touches on various ways to include the audience.
    Above all the audience have to feel included and that you are talking directly to them, not a huge audience.

    • Hi Keith

      Welcome and thanks for stopping by. I’ve visited your blog and subscribed – and also tweeted your post.


  11. Thanks Olivia
    Much appreciated.


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