Effective Communication: Connecting with an Audience

I hope that the past few weeks have provided some great insight and tools to help you continue your journey to genuinely connect with others. This week, the focus turns to our opportunities to speak in front of an audience. In my opinion, this is the hardest of the three that we have covered.

I have always had an almost insatiable fear of speaking in front of people. Fear of embarrassing myself, or saying something foolish. I was so concerned about what other people thought about me that the anxiety was almost more than I could handle. It wasn’t until reading this book that I realized that the more I am able to put my pride down and lean into the fear with humility and courage, the more I was able to focus on those I was speaking to and hoping to add value to. It was a game changer.

The following provides some great insight from John Maxwell’s book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect and tips I have picked up along the way that will help you be more effective the next time that you are asked to speak in front of an audience.

Topics we will touch on:

  • Before You Give the Speech

  • Connecting with Non-Verbals

  • Placing High Value on Your Audience

  • How to Be Interesting

  • Connecting is More Skill than Natural Talent

  • Connectors Inspire People

If you are involved in any kind of business, having a good product or service isn’t enough. Becoming an expert on your product or service isn’t enough. Knowing your product but not your customers will mean having something to sell but no one to buy. And the value you place on others must be genuine.
— John Maxwell

Before You Give the Speech

There are two questions that I ask myself as I am preparing to speak in front of a group:

  • “What are the bare essentials that I need to communicate for people to understand it?”

  • “How can I make those few essential points memorable?”

Another great practice before speaking in front of a group is to make the speech to a single person. Once you are finished, ask for feedback: what worked, didn’t work, how were my non-verbals, etc.? You could also record yourself practicing and go back through and watch it and do a self-critique. You’ll probably discover some quirks that you didn’t know you had that might be distracting to an audience. You might find that you say “umm” or “and such” a few too many times!

Connecting with Non-Verbals

Connecting with an audience is probably the most challenging of the three because it is mostly from a stage and reliant on our own words. Here are three immediate improvements that you can make to your nonverbal communication at the beginning of a presentation:

  • Connect visually by smiling

    This lets people know you’re happy to be communicating with them.

  • Connect intellectually by pausing strategically

    It give the audience time to think about something you’ve said.

  • Connect emotionally through facial expressions, laughter, and tears

    It reminds those listening that you are a real person and opens the door for connection.

Place a High Value on Your Audience

It goes without saying, but how you view the people that you are connecting with is incredible vital. Your attitude towards your audience matters. When speaking to an audience, focus on a few important things:

  • Express your appreciation for them and the occasion as soon as you can.

  • Do something special for them if you can, such as preparing unique content for them and letting them know that you have done so.

  • See everyone in the audience as a “10,” expecting a great response from them.

  • As you finish speaking, tell them how much you enjoyed them.


How to Be Interesting

Another vitally important question most speakers ask: “How do I avoid boring the living daylights out of people?” Maxwell gives seven tips to how to be interesting and I’ll give you some things that I have learned along the way:

    I always start by saying something like, "I wouldn't want to waste your time or mine. I hope to add value to you and leave you with something that will help you _________" or something like, "I hate it when people get on stage and answer questions that none of us have ever asked in our entire life!"

    I try to bring clarity up front so that they are not having to wonder, and can focus becuase they now have clarity. Anytime a speaker is up front, the audience is wondering:

    • What is his/her intent?

    • What am I supposed to take away?

    • What am I supposed to do (call to action)?

    Put yourself in the shoes of those you are speaking to. I usually will call or email ahead and ask questions of a few people who are connected to that group. I want to know what is going on in the last few weeks/months that would be helpful to know before I get up to speak. If I am being asked to speak for a specific team, I want to know what has changed recently, what some stress points are currently, or if there is anything I need to stay away from that would disrupt my ability to connect. I will reach out to leadership and ask what they are working on in regards to team development/culture/projects that I could speak to and give them a lift. 

    You typically have about 30-60 seconds to capture someone's attention. You will know when you have it and it will be obvious when you lost an audience. It can be hard to recover! I try to come out of the gates with positive energy and try as quickly as I can to connect with them based on what I know to be true and relevant in their world at that moment. I communicate that I am excited to be there with them, that I have prepared for this specific group, and that I am confident that the next ______ minutes will be valuable to each person if they choose to engage. Only say this though if you have prepared the goods to deliver. Dont over-sell and under-deliver! 

    In a smaller group, I take a minute and will ask people's names, what they do, how long with the company, etc. In a larger group, I might ask questions like: Who here is in Sales/HR/Accounting/Operations, etc? Who has been in the industry for 1/5/10/+20 years? Come up with a few interactive questions to get a gauge for who you have in the room that can activate the audience from the start.

    There are times where I will have the audience find a partner and discuss a relevant question that will help them better engage and connect. If I’m talking about leadership, I might say, “Which leader has had the greatest impact on your life and career, and why? Take 60 seconds with the person sitting next to you and share.” I usually will plan to have time for this, but if you feel that you have lost the audience for they are disengaged some reason or another, use this to bring them back together.
    If you are speaking in the afternoon (typically the worst time), you might find a way to have them stand up and get the blood flowing again. Nothing worse than right after lunch, both for the audience and the one speaking! Get them up and moving for a bit!

    I try to narrow down my entire presentation into one (maybe a few) sentences. This brings clarity for me as the speaker as to what I want the audience to come away with, but I also will use that sentence(s) a few times throughout the session. I try to make it memorable and consise if possible. For example, I taught a session on Effective Communication awhile back for some teams at Simmons. My phrase was, "To Be Unclear is to Be Unkind." I used it throughtout the session and had it visually on the screen at one point. What's interesting is that even a few years after teaching that, I still have people talk about that workshop and they will use this phrase. Bring clarity to your message and find a phrase that will stick. 

    An object or something visual can really help to drive home a main point. When talking about Simmons Values, I bring a ship wheel and talk about what it looks like to be Values-Driven and the need to connect our Values (Wheel) to our behaviors (Rudder). When teaching a session on Compassionate Accountability and Neccesary Endings, I bring in a rose bush and as I am teaching about the principle of pruning. I have gloves on and work on the rose bush as I teach. Find something that connects with your main point and leverage that object to help make what you have to say something that can be seen and remembered. I will say, having lugged that wheel and rose bush around for the last few years, it might be wise to pick a lighter object!


    Stories connect an audience to a message about as well as any other tool you can use. We are drawn to story and it connects our head and hearts like nothing else can. Once I have clarity around my main point(s), I will look to find a story that helps drive my topic even further. Here's what I have found to be the best: 1) Tell the truth. Don't make it up. You will lose credibility. 2) Personal stories help connect with an audience and makes you relatable and authentic. Be thoughtful in what you share. Don't get carried away with the details. Credibility can also be lost if your story points out that you are a immature dufus. 3) Ask people close to you if they have a story about the topic. Some of the best stories I share came from those around me who have taught me incredible insights through their life experience. Make sure you have their permission to share it and ask if they want their name to be shared or withheld to protect the guilty! 

When the speaker is insecure, he will seek approval from his audience. And the more he wants to seek approval from them, the more engrossed he becomes in himself and how he can impress others. As a result, he is more likely to fail to meet the needs of the moment.
— Keng Sheng

Connecting is More Skill than Natural Talent

  • Show interest in your audience. When possible, meet and greet audience members before you speak. While speaking, let people know that you understand that each person is unique and special.

  • Place value on each person by letting them know you spent a lot of time preparing your talk because you value them, their purpose, and their time.

  • Put the people first by letting them know you are there to serve them. I do this by being willing to answer questions or making myself available to interact with people after a speech.

  • Express gratitude to them and thank them for their time.

Connectors Inspire People

People should not only leave informed, but inspired. Your audience should…

  • See that you enjoy being with them and want to help them.

  • Feel that you are their friend.

  • Know that you are authentic, and vulnerable - not perfect, but growing.

  • Feel you are conversing with them, not talking down to them.

  • Know that you believe in them and they can believe in themselves.

I hope that these nuggets of wisdom will help you better prepare for the next opportunity you may have to speak in front of an audience. It is a skill that can be learned, but it takes work and courage to lean into the fears that hold us back from saying, “Yes” when those opporutnities comes our way. Don’t hold back. Try something hard. Stretch yourself a little bit. You’ll be surprised what you are capable of!

Spend time watching and learning from exceptional communications (John Maxwell is one of the best). I spent hours watching RightNow Media@Work videos of speakers like Maxwell, Henry Cloud, Pat Lencioni, Andy Stanley and others. I took notes on what seems to connect well and what didn’t. And then, I started to form my own style based on a balance of what seemed to work for others and what came natural and authentic to me through my personality.

Even if you don’t have any speaking opportunities planned, start doing the work now. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

To be successful in the long run, you need to do more than connect. You need to keep connecting, and you can do that only when you live what you communicate.
— John Maxwell

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