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It didn’t surprise me that the student had cried at the end of her first presentation. On the contrary, I was impressed that she had managed to make it through the entire presentation before coming to tears.

Early on in her presentation, I could see that she was trying to get some sort of empathetic response from her audience – eye contact, a smile, a nod – but no such responses were forthcoming. This audience wasn’t for her. There was no way she was going to win them over the way she wanted to. She was presenting to her classmates. All of whom were distracted by their own concerns about their own presentations, and how they would perform when it came their time to present.

Rather than backing off and letting her classmates be, she continued to try for a response from the audience – to get them to respond to her, to acknowledge her presence. Such openhearted bravery often leads to tragedy as it did in this case.

“How do you think you did?” I asked when she’d finished.

“Not very well,” she replied as her face reddened.

“Why?” I asked as I tried to think of how to distract her and keep her from crying.


The flood of tears followed.

She’d felt abandoned by her friends – “they look liked dead fish” she said later — though it wasn’t their intention. In fact, they would have been shocked to realize how callous their reactions had felt to her. The empathetic response she’d so desired just wasn’t there, and that often makes all the difference in how the presenter feels.

Anyone who has presented enough knows the feeling. I do. I once spent the better part of a week preparing a presentation on behalf of our local Japan office for the global CEO. However, as I was making some initial remarks, he thumbed through the printout, tossed it aside and said, “Well, thanks for that. Now let me ask you…”

He was perfectly polite and surgically precise, but hadn’t the slightest interest in making an empathic connection. It was the longest presentation of my life, though it lasted less than 30 minutes. He offered no response to my attempts to connect; in fact, he offered no feedback at all. Just continued polite questioning.

To be fair, it must have been difficult from his side as he surely heard hundreds of similar presentations annually as he visited various local offices around the world. But, fairness isn’t what we seek when we’re looking for a response from the audience, it’s empathy.

We need positive feedback. When we get it, perhaps just a single person making responding with a nod and a smile, that person becomes the lifesaver upon which our presentation floats rather than sinks.

But how can we get these empathetic responses?

Here are some of the techniques that I have learned over the years, many from leading classes of more than a 100 undergraduate students in warm lecture halls in Central California:

  1. Show that you’re excited and happy to be there – This is the first rule of nearly anything we do and yet it is easy to forget. Enthusiasm is contagious — be contagious.
  1. Get a simple yes – Anything that will elicit a positive, simple crowd response is a good start. Say it and then wait for a response. If you don’t get the response you want, say it again. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? Come on, people, it’s a beautiful day, right?”
  1. Cold call – Ask a question and again wait for the response. If none comes chose someone who seems likely to have an answer. This can even work well in even larger lecture halls – just be sure to choose carefully.
  1. Close the distance – Get away from the PC. Now that you’ve called on someone, walk toward that person. Walking toward someone in the audience, with whom you’ve made eye contact, will usually engender a response. At the very minimum, show open and welcoming body language toward them. Bill Clinton is the master of this technique.
  1. Follow up – The person you have engaged has answered. Now, ask a follow up question, “How? Why? Because?” This shows that you are not only listening, but also adds depth to the conversation.
  1. Use their words – Repeat their specific words or phrasing in your response to what the person has said. Person in audience: “Nike’s the best brand because it’s for winners.” You: “Wow. Nike’s the best brand because it’s for winners. What a strong answer.”
  1. Reward them – Give those who engaged a verbal prize. “Thank you for that.” “Excellent question!” “Oh, yes, good point.”
  1. Insist on it – Don’t let the audience drift. If you ask a question, be sure to get a response. “I just asked a question. I need a response. You need to talk to me.”
  1. Ask them to help you – “Don’t leave me up here by myself. I need you with me. Let’s focus on this.” It’s surprising how well this works. It’s a simple request for empathy, for a response.

Back to our student: To her credit she persevered through the course without becoming cold or giving up on engaging with the audience. She continued to be open and enthusiastic. Sometimes the audience responded, sometimes it didn’t. But, in the end, but she became much better about getting empathetic response, and that was all that mattered.

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