Last week, I was in Paris yet again for what feels like the EMBA work marathon (I would say that I hit the 19 mile wall, but we're only halfway). And now that we're on a roll, my 64 classmates and I are reluctantly pumping up the work on our individual capstone projects - our theses in action, essentially. So to put our Business Strategy learnings into action, we were asked to present our analyses in under 10 minutes to our classmates. And when I say "classmates," I'm talking about impressive people. We're a group of 65 people from 35 different countries; a mix of general managers, to subject specialists, to DFOs and CEOs.
When I present in my "real" life, I typically open with a couple light-hearted remarks. I'm no comedian, but I've found that personal humorous comments help me connect with the audience. If I'm having a good day, I'll even receive a couple chuckles in return. So when it was my turn to stand at the front of the room, I did just this. I opened with a short, personal story, lightly making fun of myself, and...
Not a smile. The little corners of my peers' mouths were not even tempted to fidget. Standing in front of the others, I felt more isolated by the minute, so I rushed through the remaining 9 minutes at a pace that was way too rapid with far too many filler words.
So was my average performance my peers' fault? Of course not. I should have been more resilient and kept my cool no matter the tone of the room. And I'll take that lesson forward.
However, it did make me think about what type of audience member I am to others. Am I on my phone? Am I slouched in my chair with arms folded? Do I respond when the rest of the room is silent? I got curious and started observing, lecture by lecture: were we being a generous audience? To professors? To the outside consultants coaching us? Perhaps most importantly: to our fellow peers?
We're a critical crew, yes. This is one way that we got to the top of our games. But could it be a two-way street? If our body language is physically open and accepting as an audience, won't we naturally get more out of our presenter too?
Later in the week during another peer presentation, I happened to glance at a good friend sitting across the room. She always has an incredible, open demeanor and is magnetic (also lovingly nicknamed our CHO: Chief Happiness Officer). When I looked at her listening to our presenters, she was leaning forward with attention and a big smile on her face, nodding along with the pace of the speaker. "That is being a great audience," I thought.
So, here are 4 ideas on how to be a generous audience, which I will be practicing in the future:
- Sit up and be open (but not too open). Slouching and crossing your arms across your chest conveys that you're closed off and unwilling to receive anything new. However, on the other hand, don't man-spread with your legs or your arms. As a woman, watching a guy lean back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head (sit up style) feels dismissive.
- Get off your phone! Obvious, I know. But somehow it doesn't stop us. Put your phone on airplane mode for 30 minutes so that the temptation is even less.
- Smile - or at least be neutral. Know what your natural resting face is.
- Respond. When the presenter asks a question, asks for questions, or tries to engage you, say something. Say anything. Wait, not anything- not something just to hear yourself talk. But think about it: (s)he's stood up there and given something to you. Be generous and give something back (like Emily's comments on her Power Song suggest).
For those who are equally great at or scared of presenting, what do you wish your audience would do?