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How to Turn Off an Audience

A good speech or presentation starts out as a good piece of writing. Speakers who rouse us to action and thought do not just pour forth brilliant, well-spoken sentences. They write them first–or they have someone else write them.

Sometimes when I have spoken briefly at a meeting of the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) or another volunteer organization, individuals have approached me afterward and said, “You are an excellent speaker!” I’m sure they would be surprised if they knew that I had actually written my entire presentation and practiced it several times before delivering it. It would be more accurate if they said, “You are an excellent writer and practicer!”

That brings me to how to turn off an audience. (Definition of turn off: alienate, cause to lose interest.) You can easily turn off an audience by telling them that you will not live up to their expectations. Here are examples:

I recently attended a presentation in which the speaker opened this way: “I didn’t realize I knew anything about today’s topic until I was asked to speak about it. Then I thought about what I do, and I realized that I do know about this topic.” I had gotten up early, driven to the event, paid my money, and expected to be listening to an expert. But when I heard his opening remarks, I wanted to walk out of the room, go to a bookstore, and buy a book by a recognized expert on the topic.

The same speaker said, “Just about all I have to say can be said in 5 minutes.” This remark worried me because the talk was scheduled to run an hour.

On another recent occasion, a speaker at a networking meeting said, “Up until 5 minutes ago, I had no idea what I was going to say.” This remark was not too upsetting because he was scheduled to speak for only 10 minutes. Nevertheless, those 10 minutes were being spent in front of 20+ people–for a total of 200+ minutes of our time. Wouldn’t it have made sense to prepare? Couldn’t the speaker have found time to write out his presentation, practice it, and then share 10 minutes of useful information?

Here are the steps to avoid turning off an audience:

  1. Accept speaking assignments only when you can actually deliver what is requested and have time to prepare well.
  2. Decide on your topic and its focus in advance. If you publish a description of your talk, make sure it is accurate. Don’t use too much detail in the description; that way, you will allow yourself room to adapt the talk as you write it.
  3. As with any type of business communication, think about your audience and what they need. For example, I am speaking at a joint meeting of the Association for Women in Computing (AWC) and the Society for Women Engineers. To prepare, I attended a recent AWC meeting, and I am thinking about the specific challenges facing women in technical professions.
  4. Write out your entire presentation, from opening remarks to your closing sentence. As you write it, speak it aloud to be sure that it sounds natural.
  5. Practice several times. As you practice, cut or revise any content that doesn’t sound right, and change it in your written copy. Don’t be lazy: if you hear yourself saying “This slide is hard to read, but . . .” get rid of the slide or fix it. Your audience deserves the best.
  6. Practice until you can speak without referring to your notes often. Then create a final set of brief notes. In my final notes, I like to include the opening words of new sections.
  7. If you can, record yourself. Then play your recording on the way to your talk.

Audiences expect to hear a good speech or presentation–not a brilliant one. By thinking about their needs, writing out your speech, and rehearsing it, you can give them a good talk rather than a turn-off.

Other search spellings: speach, presetnation, presentaton, presentaion, audeince, wirting

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.