Fascinating dinner guests, influential entrepreneurs, successful sales associates, persuasive speakers and dear friends all have one thing in common: they listen. They listen carefully to the hopes, fears and perceptions of their audience, potential investors, customers, clients and soulmates. They do what most of us don’t; they take the time and effort to put themselves in another person’s shoes.  They dig – and then dig deeper – until they know their audience intimately. They ask questions – the right questions – gain insight into their audience’s desires, hopes and biases.  As Stephen Covey puts it, successful people “seek to understand before they seek to be understood.”

Not many of us, when meeting a new person at a party, start talking about ourselves. Even the most introverted of us know that social convention dictates we engage others.  We ask questions, we respond to the answers, we find out about them, their work, their family, and, if the conversation goes deeper, their desires and concerns.

Why is it, then, that we become self-focused bores when we present?

Most presentations start out with “About Us” or, even worse, “The History of XYZ Company.” This signals to you, the audience, that you’re in for a fate worse than your neighbor’s vacation slides. You’re about to spend your valuable time drinking from a fire hose of facts about the presenter’s company, the presenter’s ideas, and, ultimately, the presenter’s needs, namely:  your money, your time or your “buy in.”  So you look for a way out after the first slide.

A lack of audience focus spells death to engagement, to retention, and, ultimately, to conversion or sales rates.

Why are most presenters content to throw endless value propositions on slides, add on a few meaningless titles and call it a day?  For the same reason we prefer to talk about ourselves and, when others are talking, we think about what we’re going to say next.

Listening is hard.

Active listening takes work. It doesn’t come naturally. It requires being other-focused. The following are a few quick pointers to get your social life – and your presentations – back on track to their purpose:  forming engaging – and thereby influential – relationships.

  1. Take the time to get to know your audience. What are their concerns regarding the topic? What past experiences have they had – both bad and good – that have biased them before they even walk in the door? Address these issues upfront in your presentation, before you even mention your company or your idea or your value.
  2. Use your audience’s time wisely. What does your audience hope to gain from spending their valuable time listening to you? Ultimately, all of us want similar things: more money to improve our lifestyles, more time to spend with our families, more respect at work, and deeper relationships with friends and family. You’re not presenting to robots, so ask yourself, “How can my idea/product/service help my audience achieve their desires?” “What is the payoff for my audience?”
  3. Connect on every slide. As you move into the main topic of your presentation, on every slide, ask yourself “How does the information on this slide connect to my audience? How can I show my audience, throughout the presentation, that I understand them, I am focused on them, and that my topic will make their lives easier, bring them more respect at work, or help them save money?”

Show that you have taken the time to understand your audience. The time you spend at this stage of the presentation process will reap great rewards in terms of conversion rates and deep connections.  And guess what?  You’ll come nearer to meeting your own desires – success in your business and personal endeavors.

— Kathryn Westberg Ph.D.

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