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Public Speaking

Published in 2004, The Toastmaster Magazine

Intuitively Speaking

by Patricia Fry

Jerry was mortified. He was nearly halfway through the speech he'd carefully prepared for the visiting elder hostel group when he noticed that they weren't responding. He says, "They didn't seem to be interested in what I was saying. They didn't even laugh at my jokes. I might as well have been talking to a stand of trees."

And then he had an idea. He explains, "I realized that these folks had been sitting on a bus for three hours before arriving here. Then they had a big lunch. They were probably ready for a nap not a historical talk." Jerry knew that, in order to make a memorable impression, he would have to spice up his presentation.

He says, "I thought about jumping up and down or turning a cartwheel." Instead, he asked everyone to stand up. Rather than continue his lecture as rehearsed, he decided to get the audience involved.

He divided the audience into three groups and gave each of them an assignment. One group was instructed to compose a story revealing the legend of the city flower. He asked the next group to tell the story of the haunted bridge on the outskirts of town. And the third group had to give their rendition of how the town got its name.

According to Jerry, audience members had a blast making up stories to tell. And then they sat on the edge of their seats eager to hear Jerry reveal the actual history. He says, "If I hadn't followed my instincts, I would have ended on a flat note. Instead, these people left feeling energized. This is a presentation they'll definitely remember."

You can thoroughly prepare for a successful presentation, but there's no guarantee that it will be well received. Even professional speakers sometimes find themselves facing an unresponsive audience.

Patricia Ball, CSP, CPAE is a professional speaker, an author and a presentation skills coach. She spoke at the international Toastmasters Convention in 1997. And she has had her share of speaking challenges. She says, "I spoke to an audience yesterday and, while they were quite good, they weren't as enthusiastic as my usual audiences even with some of the funniest stories. I knew the problem in advance. This group was facing cutbacks and they were uneasy. They didn't know what their future was. So we ended up stopping at one point in the program and talking in detail about the problem."

Through no fault of their own, both Patricia and Jerry faced potential speaking failures. But they both saved the day. How? By observing their audiences and by following their own instincts.

Do you call on your intuition when speaking? Many people rely upon their instincts quite naturally—without giving it much thought. Others use techniques to hone their intuition while speaking. And still others deny their intuitive powers, thus ignoring the signs that could transform a dying presentation into a successful one.

I remember once listening to a woman drone away far too long while people all around me were fidgeting, squirming in their seats and even nodding off. Had she cared about her audience and paid attention to their body language, she may have instinctively changed her pace or wrapped up her talk more quickly.

What is Intuition Anyway?

Intuition might take the form of a hunch. To use your intuition is to follow your instincts. Each of us have, at some time in our lives, reacted instinctively or intuitively. Ball defines intuition this way, "It's an awareness of everything that's going on around you. For example, as a speaker, you can actually read the body language of audience members."

She describes an audience that is with the speaker, "They're leaning toward you, they're smiling, there are affirmative nods throughout or you hear the laughter and applause." Ball talks about a recent audience that wasn't tuned into her speech, "I noticed that there were too many crossed arms, there was a lot of slouching in the seats as well as some yawns and coughs. If you see and hear too many of those, it's usually indicative that the audience is bored—they're not with you."

Being aware of your audience is definitely one way to hone in on your intuitive powers. Another is to be well prepared.

Jim Cathcart, CSP, CPAE is also a full-time professional speaker and an author. And he is the recipient of the Toastmasters Golden Gavel award for 2001. He believes in the power of intuition. In fact, he says that, "Intuition and playfulness and the ability to be flexible all seem to be kind of interlinked." But he also recognizes the value of being well prepared.

According to Cathcart, "Intuition is a natural gift, but it's a gift that's inhibited when you have to worry about other things. If you don't do your homework—if you don't organize your purpose and process—you're not free to follow your intuition because you don't even hear your intuition."

Trust Your Instincts

It is one thing to understand and be aware of your intuition and another to trust it. Jerry trusted his hunches and made a positive change in the direction of his presentation. A large part of trusting is a willingness to be flexible and spontaneous.

I once spoke as part of a panel during a fundraiser for our local museum. I was the third of four speakers. But, when it was my turn, 2/3 of the allotted time had been used up and the audience seemed weary. Rather than give my prepared talk, I offered a brief overview of my topic—private schools in our community—and I opened the floor to questions. I led a lively 15-minute Q&A session that seemed to rejuvenate the audience and they were more attentive for the last panel member.

The fact is that preparation is probably more important for those times when things don't go according to plan than when they do. If I hadn't been well prepared that night, I would not have been able to deviate from my planned talk and I certainly wouldn't have felt at ease answering audience questions.

It has been Ball's observation that a speaker is not acting, but reacting. She explains, "If you react to what the audience is telling you, you'll have a much more exciting presentation." And she says, "Sometimes you have to say, we have scheduled this to talk about this, but I'm sensing that you really want to talk about other things, so let's do that for a minute."

Acting on Your Hunches

Lack of information is murder on your intuitive powers. Cathcart explains, "When I go into a speech, I want to know who's the client organization, why am I here and why would this group of people want to know what I?ve got to say on this subject. What are the variables? Do I know where the controls for the lighting and sound are? Where are the exits in case of emergency? If I'm forced to cut, do I know what I can cut and still get the message across and still have an impact on the audience? All of those things are required for a person to be fully able to just follow his intuition."

Cathcart talks about one of his intuitive experiences. "I was at a Florida resort speaking to about 300 people. I was using a power point presentation and, in the middle of my speech, all power went out. So the power point went down, the computer shut off, the lights went out. We were standing there in the dark. Happily it was not at night. It was in the afternoon, but it was during a storm. I said, ?Would someone please find the operating cord for the curtains and open them up.' With the curtains open, we couldn't see each other totally clearly, but it was okay."

Cathcart continues, "I had a wireless mike so I left the stage and walked into the middle of the group. I said, ?Folks, for the next several minutes we're going to finish this presentation as theater in the round.' I said, ?Let's forget about audiovisuals and focus on the idea.' And I launched into a story that I was going to tell anyway."

According to Cathcart, "I wandered slowly through the audience as I told the story and I made eye contact with everyone. I didn't lose them at all. They were totally engaged. Even after the power came back on and the technician was rushing to get the computer booted up again, I stayed in the audience and kept drawing their attention to me and my material and my dialogue."

Cathcart certainly followed his instincts that day in Florida. And he did it so effortlessly that, as he says, "It was as if we planned for the whole thing to happen." This is key to using your intuition. You should be able to initiate any changes so naturally that no one in the room is aware that it isn't a part of the program.

Are Women More Intuitive?

It's a long-held belief that women are more intuitive than men. Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D., psychologist, author and expert on gender issues says there may be valid reasons for this. She explains that while there is no undebatable scientific proof of a woman's advantage in the realm of intuition, there are significant differences between a male and a female brain. According to Tingley, "The corpus callosum—the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain—is larger in women than in men. Theoretically, more information moves back and forth between the two hemispheres, allowing women the advantage of quicker, broader and more automatic integration of information from the more logical left and the more emotional right hemispheres. The result," says Tingley, "is intuition."

Techniques to Help Hone Intuition

Honing your observation skills is one way to sharpen your instincts. Another is a technique called split focus concentration. Ball describes this as the challenge of doing two unrelated activities simultaneously.

According to Ball, "When you're on the platform you're not only responsible for delivering information in an exciting, powerful way to your audience, but you're also responsible for being aware of so many other things at the same time. You need to be aware of ?Am I going too fast or slow, is the audience with me or against me, is the room too hot or cold, what can I do to move this alone better, do I need an exercise at this point?'"

To practice split focus concentration, Ball suggests rehearsing your speech while tossing a ball from one hand to the other or while polishing your shoes. Practicing this way helps you learn to handle any distractions that might vie for your attention or focus while you're speaking.

Intuition is a rather elusive concept for some. But if you hope to become a skilled speaker, it is an important one to embrace. Hone your intuitive perception and rely on your instincts while speaking and you will enjoy greater speaking success.

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