Monday, 17 November 2014

The perils of failing to ‘own the space’ as soon as you start your business presentation

I received a stark reminder at the weekend of one of the essentials of opening a presentation; together with energy and engagement you need to ‘own’ the space from the moment you kick off.

I was attending a charity dinner in the City of London and I became increasingly irritated at the way certain people continued to talk, both as the MC spoke and then as the auctioneer sought bids. I grew more angry as the MC’s “shush” pleas were ignored, leaving me itching to intervene in the way I once did at an outdoor charity concert staged beside a lake in the grounds of a Surrey manor house. “Excuse me”, I said to two women deep in conversation about how their children were getting on at their boarding schools, “that is Eric Clapton over there and most of us want to enjoy this rare opportunity to savour the world’s greatest guitarist in very special surroundings; we don’t want to hear ……”

I hesitated, though, because I was attending as a ‘Plus One’ with my wife and I didn’t want to embarrass her, our host or her other guests. Eventually, however, I could stand it no longer and I strode towards the noisy people and said as loud as I could: “For pity’s sake stop your chatter, just for five more minutes!”

A degree of hush ensued and a bit later the MC came up to me, thanking me for my intervention, saying he found it ‘very helpful and so heartfelt’. I commiserated with him, but what I could/should have added was that anyone getting up in front of an audience – especially where alcohol and spoilt rich people are involved -needs to set their agenda very clearly. You need to seize control of the situation, because if you don’t, the audience probably will.

In short, the speaker needs to ‘own’ the space. I once saw Jenni Murray do this brilliantly at the ceremony for some industry awards I had been judging. “Right”, she said a she opened, “we’ve got a lot to get through, so this is how we are going to do it.” Having laid out a few rules, both about being quiet while people were talking and as noisy as possible when applause was required, she introduced a ‘carrot’ element as she held up the bottles of champagne that she would be awarding throughout the process to the ‘best behaved tables’.

The same principles apply even in more civilised situations just as board rooms and lecture theatres. For the time allotted to you, the space is yours and you need to own it. So don’t start until you are ready, and when you are tell the audience what is going to happen, how it is going to work and what, if anything, you need them to do. As long as your preparation and planning has been heavily focused on your audience and what is going on in their minds - rather simply what you want or need to say - you are likely to find them surprisingly compliant.

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