Monday, 29 February 2016

How do you generate applause at a business presentation?

I was working with a CEO recently on the plans for his big concluding conference speech. As we honed the various moments of light and shade that were designed to trigger memories of some serious underlying messages, he said: “We might get some applause there”. I responded saying: “You will get some applause there”. He didn’t quite seem so confident, but he didn’t know I had just appointed myself ‘Applause Leader’.

Most of us don’t, of course, expect to receive actual applause in a typical business presentation, though it’s always great feeling if a spontaneous burst is forthcoming when something special has been achieved.

At staged conferences, however, you probably do expect applause at a series of key moments. It’s with the ‘in between’ situations such as so called ‘town hall’ meetings, big announcements and special occasion speeches that it becomes a bit tricky. The audience can be faced with a ‘Do I or don’t I applaud’? feeling and you might even end with one of those awkward moments when one person tentatively starts to applaud, realises no one else is joining in and it trickles away rather quickly.

Comedians have a range of lines to handle these situations, such as: “all or once or not at all”, followed by “now you’re just clapping out of sympathy”. Magicians, meanwhile, will typically say: “when I first saw that, I was so amazed that I didn’t applaud either”. This both covers the silence and helps to ensure some fairly rapturous applause as he builds to an even more impressive climax.

So it’s OK for entertainers - they are doing it every night, they know what’s probably coming up and they make their handling of it part of the rhythm of their performance. How, though, does a business presenter ensure that applause comes at all and then comes in the right places and to the right degree?

Two planning points:
  1. Decide whether you would like applause – is it appropriate to the situation? If you decide it is, appoint one of your team as ‘Applause Leader’, who can start the clapping at the end of your presentation and possibly at other agreed moments. If the Applause Leader, who is ideally positioned at the back of the room, does this enthusiastically it will become infectious and everyone will join in. It’s only when the applause comes tentatively that it risks trickling away. Once you start this process, as long as you don’t overdo it, the applause should become progressively warmer – because audience members realise they have ‘permission’ to applaud.
  2. Create an applause ‘cue’ as the closing point to your presentation.  Whether or not you want or expect applause, you need to reach a short, sharp crescendo that sends your audience away with your key message. This will clearly signal the fact you have finished, while also triggering applause, especially if you have planned for that.

All you need to do then is to be sure to ‘accept’ the applause when it comes. Don’t be coy and turn away or even leave your speaking position too soon. Keep looking forwards, smile and spread your eye contact with a series of small nods. If applause – or laughter – comes earlier in your presentation don’t ‘tread’ on it – pause to let your audience show their appreciation.

For magicians only

The footnote that follows will mean nothing unless you are a magician. If you do happen to be from the magical fraternity, it’s a little gem that relates back nicely to this discussion.

Back in the 90s, I was attending a get together in Clerkenwell that I think was the launch of Guy Hollingworth’s wonderful book ‘Drawing Room Deceptions’. Many eminent magicians were present and several got up to do an impromptu trick or two. When David Williamson’s turn came he experienced one of those ‘trickles’ of applause that we all need to avoid but which can be turned to advantage by a skilled entertainer. Far from being phased, Williamson saw it as a gift, especially when he realised the identity of the person responsible. “I’d like to thank you for that short burst of applause; it sounded like four claps, but in fact it was only three”. The short burst had come from none other than Alex Elmsley!

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