Someone recently asked me who was the best speaker I’d ever seen.
I’m not a big fan of the holy-rollin’, pump-‘em-up, Nine Steps to Success school of speaker. They’re all the same, every last one of them.
I prefer presenters that break with the conventional templates, like Edward de Bono slumped over in his chair in the middle of the stage drawing squiggles, the Tom Waits of the overhead projector.
The best speaker I ever saw, coincidentally at the same conference as de Bono, was Noel Pearson, Director of the Cape York Institute, lawyer and aboriginal activist.
His passion is ending the handout mentality among his people, built up through years of good intentions from government and welfare agencies. He believes passive welfare is at the root of the social deterioration of indigenous people, and speaks of the balance between rights and responsibilities.
Not a standard topic for a conference on current business issues, rather than social ones, with an audience of overwhelmingly white finance and marketing types. He had the audience spellbound for an hour, without raising his voice or leaving the lectern. He painted a vivid picture of a world that few of us know or understand, and methodically explained how well-meaning actions can have the opposite effect.
If you define the success of a presentation by how effectively it changes the way the audience thinks, then this was up there with the best. It was a stunning display of… reasonableness.
Some lessons from Noel Pearson’s presentation style:
The Power of Not Being What They Expect
Pearson was calm, reasonable, and logical, which was not what the audience expected from an aboriginal activist. That instantly changed their willingness to listen. Kind of like Barack Obama’s success in escaping the stereotype of the Jesse Jackson-style firebrand.
Without wanting to trivialize what Pearson or Obama have overcome, we all have our stereotypes when we get up to present: Self-Indulgent Marketing Guy, Out-Of-Touch-With-Customers Finance Woman, Dandruffy IT Man. If you can break these expectations, their minds open up to your message.
You Don’t Have to Shout
A lot of speakers are really concerned about being ‘energized’, and that’s generally a good thing. But if you’re energetic all the time, there’s no light and shade. Speaking quietly and calmly can draw people in, making it seem more like a conversation than a broadcast. It creates intimacy, even in a large hotel ballroom.
Eye Contact: Show You Know Your Stuff
Pearson rarely looks down, even when he’s delivering a really complex message. Obviously his legal background helps. Apart from the non-verbal benefits of looking the audience in the eye, it shows that he knows his material, and he believes in it. When you see politicians reading from a script, you tend to think: “She doesn’t really believe that. She’s just reading something one of her staffers wrote.” If you’re really passionate about your topic, you should know your material.
The clip below shows Pearson speaking at a breakfast. He gets off to a nervous start, with lots of ums and face-touching. But once he gets the flow going, he has a superb command of language. It’s a compelling demonstration of the delicate art of telling people their views are wrong without causing offence.