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Imagining audiences in their underwear and other weak advice that hurts more than helps

by Casey Schmidt  |  October 17, 2018

6 min. read
captivate audience unexpected manner

You’ve heard it about public speaking before – if you’re nervous, picture the audience in their underwear. This advice rarely helps anybody. The reason this doesn’t work is it’s a passive solution. It implies the audience holds so much power over us that the only way we can overcome them is make them seem ‘less-intimidating’. We are trying to make a presentation memorable and possibly life-changing so we can sell a product or an idea or a solution.

Taking full control of the presentation – Gain power over the audience

It’s a battlefield. It’s you against them. You have to attack, not passively lessen your fear. Imagine all the failed or even marginal presenters who have not won over the audience. Hundreds of millions of them used the same old advice about hand gestures or imagining the audience in undergarments. Even if everything goes okay – okay is failure with presentations. People pitch multi-million dollar ideas that fail because the presentation doesn’t attack the audience. It totters on fear and mediocrity.

A woman is standing in front of a group of people sitting in a circle on chairs, listening to her.
Attack the audience with intrigue and mystery to gain their attention.

At the start of your presentation, the pressure is on you. The focus is on what you have to offer. By the end of it, the pressure should be on them. Put them onto the edge of their seat and make them feel like you’re giving them something they need to consider.

The most memorable speech I’ve heard didn’t come from a Fortune 500 CEO, but from my fourth grade teacher.

Seeing or hearing something you’ve never even imagined

My classmates and I intensely watched him hold his closed hand above his head, and slowly lower it to his mouth. The classroom filled with noise – laughter, speculation and grossed out moans. Some students remained silent, but this silence was infinitely more powerful than a student held as a result of an order of “Be quiet!”. My teacher had just caught a fly and put it into his mouth.

The material of his lesson was the same as every other teacher’s at my school – boring, bland babble that interested no one. Even worse, he wasn’t a good public speaker. He was more reserved than other teachers, and if he were on stage in front of judges for a debate contest, his marks would be noticeably poor. And yet, to this day I still remember every little detail about his speech. I sat wide-eyed through it, listening to the material he prepared with an open mind, craving to hear more. My teacher caught a living fly with his hand at the start of his speech. This was more attention-grabbing than clapping or yelling “quiet”. He was about to begin his speech, and he had just put a fly into his mouth. He stood still, mouth-closed for five seconds, then whoosh – he made a spitting sound and out flew the insect, buzzing around toward the windows.

A sitting audience of 6 persons is listening to a woman in fron giving a talk.
Give the audience something they can’t possibly ignore.

I was in the fourth grade when I learned the true key to an effective presentation. The material, the charisma of the speaker, the way their speech was structured – none of it mattered much. Captivating an audience isn’t obtained through cliched anecdotal attempts or a shocking fact at the start of the speech. Captivation of an audience begins when the audience sees something they’ve never in their lives seen before.

Not a gimmick, but a link to your main points that will spread

A presentation is limited by the number of people who can see and hear it. Sure, webinars can be shared online for viewing, and someone may post a video of your speech on social media, but the true spreading of ideas comes from excited word-of-mouth sharing. This makes creating a captivating, memorable speech so important. Will people tell someone else about the idea you presented?

In the case of my teacher and the fly, the idea he preached that day spread throughout the school and beyond. This is because he took something we had never seen before and linked it to the main idea of his speech. The idea was that the fly had no choice in the events that took place. It tried to avoid capture but couldn’t. It then got placed into a mouth and couldn’t get out. When given the opportunity, it flew away. The message my teacher told us was how we were all like the fly and things will happen to us that are out of our control. At the end of it all, we have to be prudent enough to fly away and continue with our lives.

Four coworkers with notes and laptops sitting next to each other on a sofa, talking excitedly to each other.
Ensure your presentation is interesting enough to spread by word of mouth.

When we told others about the teacher who ate the fly, it reminded us of his message, and we would even sometimes tell the message as well. It becomes ingrained in us. It was over twenty years ago and I still remember it.

Construct presentations that keep audiences engaged

Building a presentation requires technical understanding of basic speech principles, but don’t settle on the bare minimum. Ensure the presentation is functional and coherent, but then add personalized life and feeling into it, the way you would a story or song.

Knowing now the requirements for a highly successful speech, focus on what images, music or videos will build upon the message of your presentation. Zero in on specific ideas and begin searching based on keywords that are in-sync with these ideas. Remember when selecting media for a presentation that each selection creates feelings for the audience. Whether they’re forgotten instantly or remembered and linked with the topic depends on how powerful and relevant your choice of media.

A woman is giving a speech in front of a microphone.
Select the right media to make your presentation successful.

Building your presentations with consistent imagery is best done through the use of digital asset management. Canto DAM uses metadata, which gives the option to search media libraries using important keywords. Furthermore, DAM manages brand logos and keeps company presentations on brand.

I ran into my old teacher a few years ago in a grocery market. I eventually asked him, “How did you do that fly thing?” He smiled, knowing exactly what I was talking about despite it being such a long time before. He responded, “I put it into my mouth. For real.” His answer didn’t really matter at that point. All that mattered was he used something I had never seen to make me remember an idea in a presentation. Every presenter has a fly trick of their own, they just need to find it and make their presentation memorable.