How to Connect with an Audience

Over the past few years, I’ve had increasing opportunities to speak in front of audiences, big and small, in both English and Mandarin. Formats have included panels, workshop-style discussions, and long-form remarks. The subject matters have spanned from Chinese civil society to common cultural references in America.

Three such events have occurred over the past month or so. 

For the first event, I was the interpreter for my organization’s executive director at a large labor union federation conference in Alberta, Canada. At the second event organized during the Green Festival in Manhattan, I joined a panel of experts on the social and environmental impacts of garment manufacturing and consumption. Last week, I gave a talk set up by a group of Taiwanese organizers (called Cafe Philo @NYC) at a space in Columbia University.

The substance of each event was linked by a core issue: labor rights in China, which is central to my work. 

Despite the similarity in content, each engagement has felt incredibly different, from my own subjective perspective. This is in part a product of the events’ formats. For instance, the union federation event was more formally structured and the audience considerably larger than the other two forums.

One of the main challenges of delivering remarks at a public forum is also the whole point of the activity: connecting with attendees and participants. After all, if a speaker is not connecting with the audience, then this is hardly different from simply staying silent in the first place—or perhaps worse, if a speaker alienates the audience.

As I reflect back on recent and past public forums at which I’ve played the role of speaker, a few factors stand out to me as keys to connecting that you may find helpful:

1. Relevance. How are you as the speaker, gearing your message? Will it be received by this particular audience? The same point can be delivered in two or more ways.

In 2013, at a German conference attended heavily by government procurers, government officials, and NGO personnel, I provided keynote remarks on the state of labor conditions in China’s IT product manufacturing (e.g., electronics factories that turn out our phones, TVs, and other gadgets). The objective of the forum was to tackle labor abuse using the tools that can be brought to bear by government and business, so a portion of my talk was geared toward those solutions.

Days ago, I described a similar labor rights situation to a younger crowd, primarily composed of students and young professionals, at the talk in a Columbia University classroom. No one there, to my knowledge, was a decision maker reigning over a corporate or a government supply chain. Rather, my audience was composed of individual consumers and future leaders and policymakers who participated in the event to obtain a better general understanding. As a result, more of my time was spent on analysis of the causes for wipespread labor violations.

2. Attitude. Many people have received the advice to “fake it until you make”. While “faking it” is a baiting a “gotcha” moment, the saying does highlight a critical aspect of connecting with an audience: confidence.

When someone puts him or herself in the role of an audience member—taking time or even paying money to listen—they hope that you have a heightened degree of knowledge of the subject. They want to believe that you are an expert. Background research and substantive chops is obviously at the foundation of this. But so is confidence and presentation. When presenting information verbally in a public forum, a speaker’s attitude can critically affect how people receive the information. If you sound unsure, the audience will be unlikely to help you become any more certain.

3. Preparation. Knowledge and confidence are born of preparation. Writing out remarks—and practicing the talk in the case of a longer speech—is critical to ensuring that the presentation is smooth and concise. Subject matter within a talk must move along, otherwise audience members are prone to wandering thoughts—or cell phone apps. When preparing, put yourself in the seat of your expected listener. I’ll add that if you are delivering the remarks in a second language, and have done so seldom, you should practice aloud even more.

4. Interaction. Admittedly, this depends on the format of the public forum. I personally find Q&A to be the most enriching part of any speaking opportunity. This is when I get to exchange roles and find out what really gets others thinking or acting. To connect, a speaker should be inviting and humble. In cases where the audience is not specialized, they should not be condescended or shot down.

Q&A is perhaps also when the speaker comes to learn if he or she successfully made inroads with the audience. An engaged audience who feels connected is one that will raise key points which the speaker aimed to articulate. It is a two-way communication that not only reinforces learning for the audience, but also for the speaker.

Kevin Slaten

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