Keynote speakers almost always think they did well onstage. The same holds true for most trainers, workshop leaders, and breakout session facilitators, whether amateur or professional. (Where do I fall on this continuum? I’m on the keynote circuit speaking about customer service and company culture much of the year, and I do my share of training and workshops as well. And yes, I’ve learned most of these lessons the hard way.)
Obviously, though, not every speaker out there succeeds in giving a great presentation every time (and by “great,” I mean a show that connects with the audience and satisfies the talent buyer). This disconnect is a problem if you want to grow as a speaker; getting this self-analysis wrong makes it hard for anyone in this business to improve where it counts.
Why do speakers misjudge how they’re coming across? A big problem is that we’re not asking for feedback from the right people.
Who are these “right people”? My definition: The people who both know what they’re talking about and are willing to tell it to you straight.
It’s not easy to find such people, because most people who hear you speak will default to being diplomatic and avoiding confrontation. (To compound the problem, often those who are most guilty of such fudgery are speaking-industry professionals.
One partial solution is to learn to parse the comments you do receive rather than taking them at face value. Specifically, a comment such as “Thank you for making the trip” or “I appreciate that you came out for our event” is a pretty clear indicator that you stank. Watch out if this is what the meeting planner tells you after you get off the stage.
Conversely, you can also be led astray by candid but wrongheaded critics: audience members and self-proclaimed experts who are happy to share their opinions (sometimes face to face, sometimes on an anonymous survey) but who simply don’t know what they’re talking about. I once received a survey comment that said, and I quote,
“The keynote speaker’s humor is dry.”
Well, thank you very much! I thought, until I realized he meant it as a criticism.
Watch out for such reviewers, the ones who try to sand off the essential edges (as opposed to the minor dissatisfiers, which I’ll get to in a minute) of your act, the essence of what makes your content and delivery representative of who you are.
Gary Gulman, a comedian who’s made both a career and a beautiful art out of speaking about his depression, received an audience comment early on that said something to the effect of, “your act would be good if you’d just stop talking about depression.” Lucky for all of us, Gulman had the wherewithal to disregard the suggestion, or perhaps even doubled down in response.
A related problem is ascribing too much meaning to the wrong indicators, e.g., “I must have had their rapt attention; almost nobody was on their cell phone.” But actually, the most valuable audience members–the ones most likely to spread your message–are often the most habitual screen-sneaks. If literally nobody is on their phone, it’s a likely an indicator that the audience’s boss forced them to attend your event, and to put all devices away.
One problem is the confusion caused by knowing that some audience members loved you–as evidenced by thanks and applause they sent you via LinkedIn and the like–yet still receiving less than top-notch overall ratings on a survey. The reality you’re missing her is that, in fact, many, audience members did like your speech. But the difference between a “4” and a “5” on a survey of a 400-person audience is only the difference of a handful of responses. If nobody liked you, your rating would be zilch, rather than that pretty respectable “4.”
If you want to improve how your keynotes and other presentations are received, here are a couple of fixes that may help. These aren’t overhaul-your-presentation type suggestions. They’re textural: small issues you can work on that, in spite of their modest nature, can make all the difference in how your message is received.
• “Status indicators” matter. If you get these wrong, you’re not going to connect with the audience, no matter how good your material is. This is why the questions you ask at your pre-event briefing matter: Who is the typical audience member? What kind of work do they do? What do they do for fun? What businesses do they frequent? Once you’ve gathered these answers, you can restrict, say, your pinot grigio asides for one type of crowd and your NASCAR references for another.
• “This is me; take me as I am” only works if you’re Oprah or Richard Branson, someone whose attraction lies more in their personal uniqueness or celebrity than with their message. For everyone else, we have to assume the converse: that our audience cares more about our message than about us. This leaves us with the tricky task of creating an act that retains enough of your personality to make it yours but not so much that you get in the way of your message. As Richard Schelp, the co-owner of Executive Speakers Bureau, has who’s seen everything in this business (and was a huge help with this article) puts it, “The secret is not to totally throw out your persona and personality but to adjust it to who is sitting in the audience.”
• Just because you understand how an anecdote or aside relates to a larger point you’re trying to make doesn’t guarantee that your audience will. Within your brain, the totality of your material makes perfect sense because you’re so familiar with it: not just in its final form, but also in how it came together piece by piece. But you’re literally the only person with this complete knowledge, and if you don’t make connections very, very obvious, your audience, who are being introduced to your material for the first time at this very moment, they may think you’re just rambling.
• Generalizations can be offensive. This is a tricky one. On the one hand, generalizations can be funny, and, as such, are often used by comedians. But in the keynote context, while generalizations can indeed provide humor, they can also backfire, not only in such extremely verboten areas as racial, religious, and ethnic stereotypes (you already know to never go there), but even in areas you might have no idea are offensive, like geographic quirks. For example: consider the observation that so many Florida drivers forget to ever cancel their turn signals. Funny? I’d say so. But I could also see it as being ageist. And your audience might too.
• Your connection with your audience can be broken by what appear to you to be trivialities. One surprisingly damaging “disconnector” is a tiny (to you) technical glitch at the beginning of your presentation that reads to audience members as “disorganization.” Although you know it wasn’t your fault, the audience may assume it was: that maybe you arrived late or were otherwise involved in inconveniencing them. So go overboard in your efforts to avoid this fate: be there for a soundcheck/slide check even if you don’t think it’s needed (and if it’s the stage manager who doesn’t think it’s needed, it’s up to you to insist); have your slides available in two formats—the fancy one you want to use and the universal one you might have to resort to if something goes wrong; don’t use odd fonts unless you supply them, and so forth.
Micah Solomon is a customer service consultant, customer experience turnaround expert, keynote speaker, trainer, and author; you can email Micah directly, visit his website, or download three free chapters of his new book: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away): The Simple Playbook for Delivering the Ultimate Customer Service Experience, recently published by HarperCollins Leadership.