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7 New Rules for Public Speaking in the Age of Social Media

12/13/11

This is the most widely read and tweeted article I’ve written to date and appeared first on FastCompany.com.

It was painful to watch. Jon Bond, the former ad giant turned social media honcho, was actually getting heckled at the Pivot Conference. A feisty crowd to begin with, Bond’s admission that he “didn’t like Twitter” was like throwing fresh meat at rabid dogs. But rather than raise their voices, they let their fingers do the shouting. So while Bond continued to speak, a steady stream of snarky tweets projected on the wall behind him, acted like foghorns essentially drowning him out.

Being a great speaker was never easy but now, with your audience likely to have a mobile device in hand and real-time access to multiple social channels, the challenges have gotten that much greater. To get a sense of the impact of social media on conference presentations, I interviewed a bunch of regulars on the social media circuit. In the process, they helped me identify these seven (somewhat snarky) new rules for public speaking in the social media era.

1. Don’t Panic if They Aren’t Looking at You
Sure it is disconcerting when you gaze out at the audience and no one looks back. But whatever you do- don’t panic. Just because they are transfixed by their mobile devices, doesn’t mean they aren’t all ears. Explained Jenny Dervin, VP of Corporate Communications at JetBlue who received raves at a recent BDI event, “I think the body language tells you if they’re paying attention – it’s far more distracting to see people whispering to each other than it is to see someone tapping on an iPad.”

2. Stifle the Temptation to Ask for a Device Moratorium
As tempting as it might be to ask your audience to shut down their devices, every speaker I talked to thought this would be a huge mistake. Former actor and speaker extraordinaire John C. Havens suggested, “I might get their undivided attention but it would be mixed with their ire at being told how to watch my presentation.”  Havens also reminded me that in the old days, “before digital devices, a lot of people would take notes on a pad,” which isn’t all that different than tapping out a tweet.

3. If You Aren’t Nervous, You Should Be Now
When I first learned public speaking, an experience advisor suggested that you “imagine the audience is naked,” to quell the initial butterflies. Today, speakers are probably better off reminding themselves that they are the naked ones. If your facts are wrong, your audiences will Google then tweet the corrected data before you can say, “I’m just sayin’.” And if that isn’t scary enough, as author and speaker Jeff Jarvis proclaims, “the lecture, as a form, is bullshit” so you better ask yourself what you’re doing up there anyway!

4. If You Don’t Speak Tweetese, It’s Time to Learn It
Let’s just imagine for the moment that your audience is absolutely riveted by your every word. Chances are some, if not many of them, will want to share your wisdom with their network, not tomorrow when they get back to the office but right at that very moment. It is for this reason today’s effective speakers are not just sharing their Twitter handles upfront but also mixing in tweetable quotes. Added Havens, “puns, sound bites and pithy phrases are [also] ways to aid in retention.”

5. Congratulations! You May Be Speaking to Millions You Can’t See
The irony of speaking in the social media era is that audience in front of you may be far less significant than the collective reach of that particular group. Explained Frank Eliason, SVP of Social Media for Citibank, “I’d much rather have the broader reach, it is one of the better measurements of speaking at events.” Havens confirmed, “odds are half of them are tweeting about my presentation and they’re helping market me!”

6. The Reviews Are In – In Real Time
Rather than waiting to ask a friend after the fact how you did, today’s skilled presenters welcome this feedback in real time. Eliason offered, “it’s fun to respond to a tweet when I am on stage and it personalizes the interaction with the audience.” JetBlue’s Dervin finds these tweets helpful as well, “I go back in the stream to see what landed, based on how many people tweeted the same quote—it’s an instant evaluation of my key messages.”

7. When All Else Fails, Surprise the Audience with Honesty
Bringing this article back full circle, Jon Bond perplexed the Pivot crowd with his admission of not liking Twitter. While this honesty may have cost him some street cred with a Twitter-loving crowd, I recently saw another speaker use honesty to extraordinary advantage. Ray Kerins, VP of Corporate Communications at Pfizer, transfixed a BDI crowd with tales of a crisis that had befallen ChapStick on Facebook the day before. By admitting that Pfizer’s social media activities were a “work in progress,” Kerins earned credibility that reverberated through the Twitterverse.

Final Note
All of those quoted above are very effective speakers, and though each has their own distinctive style, there are a few other commonalities I’d also like to point out. First, none of them depend on word-laden PowerPoint presentations. Second, most are good storytellers and use humor, often self-deprecating, to connect with their audiences. Finally, each of them manages to keep their presentations short enough to allow time for a healthy Q&A. And speaking of healthy Q&A’s, you can find my complete interviews with Dervin, Havens, Eliason and Jarvis right here on TheDrewBlog.com.


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