Three Tools For Giving Great Talks: Empathy, Appreciation & Humility

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Image: leadershipcraft.com

This post was written by guest columnist Pritha RaySircar, Founder of the civic accelerator theMAKE. Follow Pritha on Twitter @PrithaRaySircar.


I’m a new social entrepreneur working in a fairly unique space, and recently I’ve begun to give talks. It's always an honor. Yet due to my relative inexperience as a public speaker, I’m almost always anxious about the outcome. Sometimes these talks go really well and generate great engagement. People walk away excited and inspired. I feel wonderful. Sometimes a talk falls flat and people check out, and on one occasion, a few left. Yes. That happened. Ouch.

As a result, I’ve begun a process of learning all I could about how to give a good talk – how can I share my experience and interests in such a way that they would be useful to others? How many successful talks would I have to digest before I can tell my story in a way that is both informative and ignites others’ passion? Is there a magic formula? I think there might be. It's called empathy. And here is what I’ve learned thus far.

The basic idea of using empathy as a guide to developing a talk is to know that public speaking is less about performing and more about connecting: giving a talk is about receiving the audience. It is about avoiding the temptation to make your talk a #selfie – a challenge when the job at hand is to speak about your work and passions. A good talk happens when one steps outside of oneself and opens up to the needs and expectations of those who are listening. It’s an exchange, whether one is speaking to three people, or 300 people, or aiming for a viral story with over 30M views.  

A big piece of empathy is appreciation. Appreciate that people have showed up to listen to your experience because they believe it might inform theirs. Your audience trusts you. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it: the degree of investment an audience represents, even if it’s an audience of three. 

Finally, humility is your friend. Especially during the Q & A. Remain open to the very strong likelihood that someone will disagree with your presentation, or ask you a question that you can’t answer. Don’t panic. Use the opportunity to open up to the audience and ask them to jump in.  Saying “I don't know, can anyone answer that?” is the invitation that transforms a talk into a dialogue, and it works. 

And of course, I do use a couple of digital tools for my presentations. I like the simple, very effective ZUI aspect of Prezi that allows one to map a story, with the audience, focusing in what they want to explore. This feature is great especially for smaller talks. I want to experiment more with Projeqt to incorporate live feeds into my presentations. I’ve attended conferences where a proper, private back channel (not just a public Twitter #) was available during presentations for group note-taking, conversation, fascinating tangents etc. I’d love to be a presenter in a back channel context. I think it would be very exciting to real-time tailor my talk to meet the interest and curiosity of my audience; almost like being in a conversation with dozens of people at the same time! Lastly, to learn about the latest in digital tools, I browse boards and ask my brilliant colleagues and friends.

What works for you when you give a talk? What hasn’t? I’m curious to learn. Please do share. And thanks for showing up for this, and me.  


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