What a magician in Hong Kong taught me about audience connection—and 7 other public speaking tips

An illusionist once took me and some friends aside after his performance for a massive youth group in Hong Kong and demonstrated how he developed an immediate connection with his audience:

There are usually two small pieces of tape on the stage in an “X” or “T” formation where you’re supposed to stand—it’s centered, and the lights are focused on that point. That’s called your “mark.”

“I always positions myself in the back corner of the stage,” Steve Varro said. “When the curtain opens, I walk in a curved line—center and forward—to hit my mark. You want to move forward to greet your audience. It creates intimacy.”

We’ve all seen speeches that begin with a speaker being caught off guard, hustling up from the audience, and moving away from them to get in position. As Varro explained, it’s more effective to position yourself strategically so you’re moving forward to hit your mark—whether it be tape on the stage, your place behind a lectern, or a spot on the ground at an outdoor groundbreaking ceremony. Also, when first addressing your audience, stay on your mark for a bit to focus and command their attention. Too many speakers wander from the start and never let up.

I’m grateful for Varro and other expert presenters who have contributed to my repertoire of presentation and speech-coaching skills. Speeches are crucial for instilling confidence throughout internal and external publics, as well as boosting sales. Plus, research has shown that an executive’s presentation skills can directly affect a company’s share price.

Our clients deliver stronger high-stakes speeches following our thorough, custom coaching sessions. Though this list of tips doesn’t match the effectiveness of an in-person session, here are a few more of my top favorites I’ve picked up along the way:

Treat “uh” as a profanity. “Uhs,” “Ums,” and other fillers drain your speech’s potency. Many people unknowingly say “uh” far more than they realize—as much or more than every 15 to 20 seconds throughout a presentation. For many, it’s nearly impossible to simply get up and give a speech without them. So here’s how to stop using them in your presentations—eliminate “uh” from your everyday life first. Have your friends or family call you out when you say it. Or attend a local meeting of Toastmasters, the non-profit public speaking and leadership skills organization—the sergeant-at-arms takes notes and cheerfully informs the group of fillers at the end. Treat fillers as profanity, and they will disappear from your vocabulary…and your speeches.

Deliver a speech, not a slide presentation. If you took away the slides, would it still be a good speech? Would John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech have been improved with a giant question mark on a screen with a red line through it? Would Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech still bring goosebumps if he had turned around to read bullet points? (If you haven’t already, see The Gettysburg Address Powerpoint Presentation) Obviously it’s fine to use slides, but don’t go overboard. Face the audience instead of the screen. You may even choose to show a blank slide periodically so the audience focuses back on you.

Address “you,” not “you guys.” Don’t lump the entire audience into one mass by saying “you guys,” or “everyone here.” They are all individuals, so talk to each person in the audience as such. Do this by saying “you.” Examples: “Have you ever noticed…?” or “Suppose you were going to….” One exception: if you’re in or from the South and wish to deliberately invoke the vernacular, a “y’all” is OK now and then.

Always have an introduction. Having someone introduce the speaker serves as a call to order and focuses the audience’s attention, whether it’s a formal speech, workshop, or a short greeting by an executive kicking off a casual, celebratory outdoor event. Even the most high-profile annual speech in the nation has a short but pointed introduction: “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States.”

Have a strong opening. You can certainly do better than, “Uh, good morning. Let me see if I can get these slides to work.” Work on a strong ending, too. The audience will remember how they felt about your opening and closing.

Don’t apologize. We’ve all heard people stand up and say, “Well, I’m sorry I’m not much of a public speaker.” Lame, lame, lame. They’re either pointing out what will soon become obvious or displaying false modesty. Both are poor. Just speak from the heart, and let your presentation stand on its own. The audience will decide how good you were and what to take with them.

In another country, learn a few local phrases, not just “hello.” If you frequently present in other countries, no one is going to expect you to be fluent in every language. If you’re good, you will be in demand, and someone will interpret for you in the local language. But I suggest opening with a few sentences in their language, which can build rapport if it’s done in a sincere, non-patronizing manner.

I learned this in Kenya in 2009, when a colloquium attendee taught me some phrases in Kiswahili. While most speakers from Europe and the U.S. would get up and start their speech with a simple “Jambo,” (Hello), he wanted me to have a stronger connection with the audience. I was grateful this happened because I was warmly welcomed upon starting my workshop. This paid off even more a few days later when I was driven well outside of Nairobi and had less than an hour notice that I would address hundreds of university students. Before continuing in English, I began my speech in my rehearsed phrases in Kiswahili: “Hello, my name is Ansel Oliver. I am coming to you from Washington, D.C. in the United States. It is very nice to be with you here today.” After the first sentence, I saw hundreds of eyes grow wider. After my second sentence, gaping smiles burst. And after my third sentence, the auditorium thundered with frenzied applause.

We may not always get such an enthusiastic welcome, but if we demonstrate that we took time to understand our audience, they’re more likely to receive our message.

—Ansel Oliver is a manager for special projects at SnappConner PR.