• Scott Stiefvater

What it really means to relate to your listeners and why most presenters don't.

Relate has two meanings, and when it comes to presenting both apply.

relate means to identify and empathize with.

Most would agree that a speaker should try to empathize with their audience while they are planning their content. If they are empathetic enough, a speaker will create engaging content such as a story with which the audience can identify.

This isn't much different than what a writer does – they try to see from the point of view of the reader and draw them into the story using characters, imagery and metaphors with which the reader can identify. In other words, the writer relates to their audience while creating the content so that the audience can relate to the content when they read it. The source and the receiver of the content, though, never meet one another – they never connect directly.

Relating to your listeners through your content is an important part of being an impactful speaker, but there's more.

relate also means to make a connection between.

A presentation is an opportunity to make a direct connection between presenter and listener. I would argue that that is a presentation's underlying purpose. Why gather listeners together at the same time if not to provide for direct connection - the kind of connection a writer never normally makes with their reader? But I have been audience to many presentations during which I feel little or no connection with the speaker. I feel as though I'm witness to a recording and my presence has no importance or impact.

The underlying challenge is that the mainstream, write-and-recite paradigm encourages us as speakers to think and act like writers.

It encourages us to create a script-like thing, often embodied in a sequence of slides, and then to recite it back like a recording. Driven to "cover" the content and "get through" all of our slides, we fail to include the listener. We fail to connect.

Relating while presenting means opening a relationship.

A relationship is inclusive. It requires an exchange. It only exists when bits are going back and forth. In a traditional presentation the bits go only one way; the speaker's ideas, voice and gestures go to the listener. The speaker though, in their head and determined to get through their content, receives nothing from the listener. They are not aware that their listener may be tired or hungry or preoccupied. They are not aware that their listener may not be receiving their ideas well. There is no relationship.

If you want to truly relate to your listeners, open a relationship with them. When it's time to present, think less like a writer and more like a great conversationalist. Be inclusive. Listen with your eyes as you speak so that your listener's body language can affect you. Give yourself the space and freedom to respond. Make the listener important. Let them impact you as you speak.