Speak About the Elephant in the Room
For years, my mentors have taught me that, when I speak, if I want to quickly connect with an audience, listen closely to what they’re talking about and address their areas of concern.
This type of opportunity presented itself this past. I was scheduled to deliver the closing keynote for the Ohio Association of Community Health Centers [OACHC]. I arrived the day before my keynote to visit with attendees during meal times and breakout sessions. That is where I grasped some of the concerns they have.
Two issues that kept popping up were:
- the quantity of information that was being presented and,
2. the extremely cold temperature in the main meeting room.
As I was finalizing my thoughts for my keynote, I considered how to incorporate those concerns into my talk.
I changed my opening. Typically, I open with a story to orient the audience to the main message. That opening story was pushed back, and I gambled with an opening I’d only used once before (with a much smaller crowd). That opening would acknowledge these facts: I was the last speaker at the end of a 2-1/2 day conference. Everyone was tired. Their heads were full of information. Some had a long ride ahead of them.
After I was introduced, I walked to the edge of the riser, sat down, lowered my head and said, “Ohhhh boy! I’ve been here since Monday. I’ve listened to 7 other speakers. My stomach is full from lunch….and now I’ve got to listen to this guy!”
Several in the audience laughed.
I continued, “Mayyyy-be, if I’m really slick, I can hold my iPad under the table cloth and check my messages.”
I concluded with, “Whoa! I’m sitting at the back of the room! Maybe I can sneak outta here when he’s not looking…..”
Still more laughter.
I then asked, “Is it possible that you’ve had one or more of those same thoughts running through your head in the last few minutes? By the way, it’s OK if you have. I’ve been to many conferences and had those thoughts run through my head far too many times.” Many of them smiled and nodded their heads in agreement.
After that opening, I then gave my ‘scheduled’ opening story. Part of that story involves me walking into a large building on a cold day. I said “it was a blustery, bitter December day….almost as cold as it is in this room.” With that line, the room exploded in laughter and several people began to applaud.
That reaction confirmed what I’ve been taught. Most speakers never address the concerns that are top-of-mind for the audience. They’re too focused on the memorized opening they’ve prepared. They’re not clued in to what people are thinking and feeling.
By listening to the wisdom of my mentors – address the elephant(s) in the room – I was able to take two potential problems (information overload and a cold room) and quickly bring the audience to my side because I acknowledged their discomfort.
I won’t go so far as to say that revised opening made my speech a success, but it did help me quickly get their attention and interest, and open their minds to my message.
As you prepare your next talk, be sure to build in flexibility to address the issues at the forefront of your audiences’ minds. You’ll greatly increase your odds of standing out and making a lasting impression.
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