Human beings are sensitive to differences in status, or power, in any social situation, including presentations. As the presenter, you automatically have higher status than your audience. This allows you to inspire them; manage their behaviour; and gives your message credibility. In informal education, though, it is best to exercise this power carefully if you want them to relate and respond to you.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
1.5.1 Establishing your authority
Your audience want to have confidence in you; they want you to succeed. So, it’s important you are able to demonstrate that you’re in charge. Higher status presenters radiate their confidence through many tiny nonverbal cues, e.g. maintaining strong eye contact; holding long pauses; standing with an erect posture and their head held high; and moving purposefully to fill the space and to reinforce their message.
Let your charisma shine
Charisma is difficult to define, but the audience knows it when they see it. It is related to how expressive, confident, powerful and present you are. This spark makes a massive difference to how audiences respond — it allows them to relax as they trust you to deliver an engaging presentation, which further feeds your confidence.
Presenters often debate if charisma is a quality people are born with or a skill which can be learnt. I suspect that the stellar performers have the advantage of starting with a high natural aptitude, on top of putting in years of work. The rest of us, however, can learn to behave more charismatically. So, even if we can’t reach the heights of the superstar performers, we can still effectively win over our audiences.
Build your credibility
To be an effective educator, your learners need to perceive you as credible in terms of how much you know about your subject and how well you can explain it. One of the most important factors affecting your credibility is your introduction to the stage, by someone known to the group. The warmth of these remarks and the reputation cues they contain help to frame the audience’s expectations. This is one reason it is essential to connect with the person who will be welcoming you as strongly as possible before the presentation.
The extent to which audiences already perceive us as experts in whatever we’re presenting is, however, horrifying to many of us. In fact, sometimes this disjoint between the experience levels of the presenter and audience can make us seem distant and limit how much they think they will be capable of understanding. In these cases, it can be useful to lower your status (1.5.2).
Manage your nerves
One of the behaviours most likely to damage your authority as a speaker is displaying obvious signs of being nervous. Unhelpfully, these anxieties tend to be strongest at the start of any presentation, just as we are trying to establish ourselves in the eyes of the audience. You can find some mindsets and techniques to help to control your nerves in 3.2.
The dark side of authority
Some presenters are driven by a dirty little secret. In the same way that the job of a traffic warden might attract some people who want to exercise power more than to serve their community, some people who become presenters make this career choice primarily to feed their ego rather than serve their audience. Power reveals character. These educators can’t see how unattractive their domineering presenting style is, but the audience can spot these alpha presenters from a distance. This is one crime which they will find hard to forgive, so exert your authority wisely.
In particular, there is a style of presenting common with younger audiences where the presenter constantly demands that they perform some physical action or complete a verbal call and response. Children under 8 years of age love to please adults and most will happily play along with these energetic games as they try to keep up with your instructions. However, I’ve witnessed educators trying to use this approach with older groups, who find it patronising and tiresome. It looks as if the educator has become a presentation dictator (4.3).
1.5.2 Becoming vulnerable
You already have much higher status as the presenter than you sometimes think. You’re standing, moving and deciding what happens next. Your audiences are usually sitting, immobile and powerless. So, one of the most interesting things you can do onstage is to reveal your vulnerability at strategic times. This is a powerful technique, but it needs to be used carefully.
Vulnerability makes you watchable
Presentation vulnerability is about becoming more open and responsive. Human beings find it impossible to ignore someone being vulnerable. They instinctively know, in this state, all of that person’s decisions and actions will reveal who they really are, without any disguise. An emotional nude. They won’t be able to look away.
Learning involves feeling vulnerable
Learners often feel vulnerable, so by lowering your status as the educator, you will become less intimidating to them. It’s too easy to come across as a know-it-all when you’re trying to explain a counter-intuitive idea to someone. You can make them feel less exposed by treating them as intelligent, but just having less experience in the subject than you.
One famous science demonstration involves a sealed metal can, which has had the air expelled from it, being dramatically crushed by atmospheric pressure.
Before doing this demo with secondary school audiences, I self-disclose that I saw this when I was their age and it made such a big impression on me, it influenced what I wanted to do after school. This truthful aside creates anticipation and helps convince them how much I care about science. I share this story in a way that shows it is important and deeply personal to me.
When the can suddenly implodes, the difference in audience response between the normal routine and the self-disclosure routine is tangible. If you want them to open up, you must lead.
Can you recall any time you found it useful to self-disclose in a presentation? I’m compiling a collection of stories and examples of hooks from readers for HOOK wisdom, a future free resource to complement this book. You can find out more and submit your stories about using any hooks here.
Vulnerability opens up your audience too
Presenters need to orchestrate their audiences by leading. The more open you are, the more your learners will reciprocate by revealing their unique personalities and embracing new learning experiences.
“People will only become as vulnerable as their leader.”
Tim Elmore (author)
Being vulnerable onstage requires strength
The reasons you find being vulnerable terrifying are the same reasons which make it so compelling for your learners. Take the risk of them glimpsing part of you or what matters to you — for example, revealing your passion for your subject — without fearing that they will mock or judge you. Only the most confident presenters are able to take the chance to allow themselves to be vulnerable onstage. Be brave.
How to be vulnerable as a presenter
There are many ways to show your emotional and physical vulnerability when you’re presenting, for example:
- geeking out — revealing what you are most passionately interested in, without embarrassment;
- sharing relevant stories of your struggles when you were their age;
- freely admitting your mistakes and even being able to laugh at yourself when you slip up;
- acknowledging when you don’t know the answer to a question;
- narrating your thoughts — being transparent by talking aloud your thought processes when trying to figure something out or coping with an unexpected event;
- exposing your natural sense of humour;
- not hiding — avoid standing behind a lectern or table;
- physically lowering yourself e.g. stepping down from a stage to go out into the audience or crouching to interact with a younger volunteer;
- being responsive — as much as you can, appearing to let them guide you and the direction of the presentation through their interactions and questions.
It’s important to only use these vulnerability hooks to better engage the group with your content and purpose. Otherwise, you risk looking manipulative rather than open.
Sharing a relevant, difficult experience with the audience can be incredibly powerful, but this is not an opportunity to relate your life story. It’s also not the time for group therapy — some experiences may just be too raw for you. You shouldn’t feel pressured into self-disclosing anything with which you’re uncomfortable or that you fear may be used against you after the presentation.