The way you speak to an audience today will not be the way you address a group in the future. And prepare for something else. Politeness toward the speaker is diminishing.
STOP. You're thinking, “I'm not a speaker, there's nothing to read here.” You are DEAD WRONG, and I'll prove it.
Any time you address even two people, you're already a speaker. And if you ever talk to a group of employees or coworkers, or give a lecture or a homily in church, you're a speaker.
What's changing is not so much how you do it or even what your message is, though one hopes you will keep it fresh. It's the audience that's changing. Yes, those of us in the “more mature” group will pretty much sit through anything, especially if we use the session to escape from undesirable tasks.
But younger audiences are VERY different, and you're going to have to adjust to those differences IF you want to get your point across.
I had a great conversation about this topic with my friend Steve Coscia (www.coscia.com), who is not only a superb professional speaker and the former regional president of the National Speaker's Association, but a first-class trainer in the HVACR industry. Steve has frequented the pages in our magazine both in print and online, but those of you in the industry who have seen him speak know precisely what I mean.
While Steve has steeped himself deeply in our industry, he keeps an ear to the train trestle of the speaking industry at large, and his comments are relevant regardless of the field.
The first change among younger listeners is simply that they have shorter attention spans, Steve says. I agree. You don't need a double-blind study to prove it; the anecdotal evidence is all around us. Young people text, listen to songs on their iPod and carry on a conversation while sipping a steaming cup of cappuccino. Throw politeness out the window, says Steve.
This creates a funk for the speaker, whether he's a professional (gets paid) or the amateur who does it as part of his job at the distributorship. The speaker wants control and achieves it, in part, on his ability to dominate the attention of the audience. Ever notice the last time you spoke to a group, a few people were either surreptitiously looking at their cell phones or maybe even brazenly examining their emails? Sorry, but presuming total control, as in the past, is gone.
The second change is that it's no longer a one-way conversation, according to Steve. You might make a statement with the firm tone of “this is a fact” in your delivery. Five minutes later, a person in the audience raises his hand and says, “Hey, Joe, that average you gave us doesn't seem right. I Googled it, and according to the federal government…” Reach out for the handkerchief to hide your scarlet face. In short, the one-way dialog will slowly die a slow death. You will have to get and keep them involved.
This might mean media, more dynamic visuals, more meaningful breakout sessions, inventive dialog AND eliciting a participatory response from your audience. You will ask them what THEY think and not only try to impart what YOU think is important.
Steve admits that this change probably frightens the marginal or middle-of-the road speakers. “Those speakers who are really good will rise to the challenge and adapt,” Steve says. “The rest will speak less or not at all.”
So the next time you address any group and discover those younger members checking their email, you might want to ask yourself: “Why is it that I'm not engaging that attendee?” Maybe you had better pump up your style, content or both. And you also might want to always provide an opportunity for the audience to exercise their right to free speech.
If you implement both of these changes, you might find the dynamics of your meetings improving. You can also use it as a more effective criteria when hiring speakers for your organization.
Allow me to plug Toastmasters (www.toastmasters.org), a terrific nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people become better communicators and leaders. As a CTM (certified toastmaster), I can attest to the effectiveness that comes with a membership fee that's pitifully modest. You can find Toastmasters clubs in most cities, and while fear of public speaking usually makes the top three of “fears,” becoming an improved speaker will do wonders for your confidence and effectiveness.
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