Hacking Public Speaking: Master The Brains of Your Audience

By: Dave Asprey

Here’s another installment in the “Hacking Public Speaking” series for you:

There is only one guy I’ve found who really knows how to hack an audience’s brains. He taught John Chambers how to present Cisco’s IPO roadshow deck, and later coached  200 other executive teams who took their companies public. His name is Jerry Weissman, and he’s a total badass. He also wrote “Presenting to Win.”

The IPO roadshow is the most stressful, hardest presentation most people can ever give, because it combines a brutal travel schedule with giving the same presentation over and over to easily distractible investment bankers, and the outcome of a 10 minute presentation can be the difference between making a million and making $10 million or more.

Jerry was a TV producer who became an expert on presentation. Every single thing he teaches you is designed to influence your audience on subtle levels, down to which direction a slide builds and which side of the stage you stand on. (wipe from left to right, stand on the audience’s left). I spent 4 full days with Jerry at his offices in the Bay Area, completely upgrading my already very good presentation skills. You can do the same if you want to drop about $5,000, or you can start by reading “Presenting to Win.”  Then throw away that awful “Presentation Zen” book that is making young entrepreneurs waste time desperately searching for the perfect stock photo to put on a slide.

Jerry is so successful because he understands mirror neurons and uses basic mental processes to cause an audience to feel comfortable. You wipe from left to right, at least for Western audiences, because we read from left to right, and it feels more natural to sweep from left to right. Building in the wrong direction causes a brief flash of discomfort. Of course, that discomfort is useful too – when you’re talking about the competition, you build slides from right to left to increase the subtle discomfort the audience feels. Ever hear of “exit stage left?” That’s the side the villain exits the stage from…

Another thing that really matters is controlling subtle stress your audience feels. If you present a wordy slide, they will try to read it while you’re talking, which causes stress. Jerry taught me to use more builds than I ever had before, literally feeding each line to the audience, and taking the time to read it myself as the audience was reading it. It felt awkward, but my feedback scores went up dramatically after I started doing this. Now I itch when I see wordy slides.

Subtle stress also comes from your body language. You can pace like a lion in a cage, which makes the audience feel your stress. You can hold your elbows to your sides like you’re tied up – causing stress. Or you can make broad sweeping gestures that feel unnatural, but relax the audience. Bonus points for making them in conjunction with your slide builds, which feels very natural once you get used to it.

So read Presenting to Win to learn how to build great slides, and practice your technique with a mirror or better yet, a video camera. But that isn’t  quite going to cut it if you’re still nervous, and your own brain is bouncing all over the place.

Next installment: How to be relaxed when you walk on stage.