We often say that during a presentation the audience has the power. It decides whether to listen to you, to grant you credibility and to subscribe to your ideas… or not. But this is largely a misnomer because when the sum of individuals who make up an audience suddenly go quiet to listen to the speaker, it is indeed the latter that is entrusted with the power. And he receives this power precisely from the hands of those who came to listen to him. This parallel between speech and power helps to explain the quasi-universal anxiety associated with the exercise of public speaking.
When the speaker is someone in a position of power, the task is simpler: the speaker simply takes the power he already has over his audience. But behind the apparent ease, it is not uncommon to apprehend being taken off guard, not being up to the task, or losing legitimacy. Managers who speak while being afraid to discredit themselves generally resort to automatic reflexes that they’ve acquired in order to control the speech by:
- Limiting the semantic level to giving an expert’s opinion
- Restraining non-verbal cues to avoid transmitting information that is not mastered
- Avoiding showing emotions, although it is the best way for a strong leader to make an impact.
In the opposite case, where the speaker has no power, the exercise appears immediately more delicate. Let’s take the example of a colleague who has a project to present to management. The main pitfall is for the speaker to express himself while being afraid of usurping the power entrusted to him. We see this case regularly: someone speaking without accepting the power that goes with it. We recognize him by his shifty eyes, his incessant fidgeting, his weak and veiled voice; everything in his expression communicates his need to flee. The main risk is that the audience usually associates the ability to bring projects to fruition with the ability to communicate about them. If you’re not able to articulate your idea, then you are not credible enough to implement it… And even if they know how to differentiate between the two, it will be difficult for them not to be more seduced, reassured and / or motivated by someone who takes on the power that we entrust in him.
We have talked about the three worst speaker profiles. It’s funny to see how they are clearly characterized by the way they use the power the audience gives them:
- The “good student” apologizes for taking the power
- The “know-it-all” asserts his power and applies it, often at the detriment of the audience
- The “showman” is addicted to power, at the risk of exercising it for his own interest
Obviously, the audience, who gave you this power, can be more or less demanding with the responsibility you’ve been entrusted with. There’s the audience who’s either complacent or already bored and will let you do what you want. And then there’s the demanding audience, which is concerned, even worried about the power it has conceded to you and will be more inclined to react or interrupt. The most feared case is where the audience entrusts power to a speaker while contesting his legitimacy to actually use it. It gives rise to the scenario feared by most speakers: a restless and undisciplined room of people, who do not accept seeing a speaker that has power that he doesn’t deserve.
This view of speech as an instrument of power, even if temporary, should not be a source of anxiety, but rather, a means to serenity through sharing a personal opinion, the fruit of an experience or know-how. There’s a good reason why public speaking is one of the most effective ways to learn how to become a leader. By practicing regularly you will learn to take on the power entrusted to you, to exercise it and to share it. An audience can be an implacable judge but it can also be a solid accomplice, even a faithful fan. Ultimately, it all depends on how you exercise your power.