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Top executive educator Marshall Goldsmith offers practical advice on succession from the outgoing executive's point of view in his new book, Succession: Are You Ready? (Harvard Business Press, February 2009)
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Leading with Presence
Present as a Leader

By John Baldoni

Have you ever seen an executive scurry across the stage, head down, clutching a copy of his presentation, and on reaching the podium, immediately begin speaking? In doing this, the exec resembles a mouse seeking shelter more than a leader about to deliver an important message! Yet we see this kind of behavior all too often. What the speaker has failed to do is acknowledge the audience. Worse, he has failed to demonstrate leadership, the kind that emerges from personal presence.

From my experience in working with executives, it is typically not the presenter's fault; she has not been schooled in basic presentation skills. For many people, speaking in front of a live audience can be so terrifying that their single overriding wish is to get it over with as quickly as possible. I teach the presenters with whom I work the art of the "metaphorical handshake," i.e., to imagine introducing themselves to each person in the audience.

This is something you want to do when you take the stage in order to put the audience in a mood to listen to you. Even though they may be seated, they have a full agenda of things to think about from their work or home lives. As a leader, you cannot control what they are thinking, but you can, with your words and behavior, put people at ease and enable them to listen to you more attentively. That is a leadership statement. Following are three suggestions for accomplishing this:

  1. Make personal contact.
    Look at your audience. Nod at people you know. Smile and relax your facial muscles. Some speakers like to wave at the audience, especially at people they recognize. Size up the audience as you reach the podium. Take a deep breath, pause, and look out at the group. Imagine you are a conductor. Your baton is your voice but before you raise it, you wait for a beat or two.
  2. Acknowledge the audience.
    Before you start speaking, comment on something that everyone in the audience may have in common. It may be the weather; it may be traffic. It may be a busy schedule. Put yourself in the audience's shoes and acknowledge their presence.
  3. Break the ice.
    Effective presentations depend on connection. People want to know you, so you have to reveal yourself appropriately. No life stories please, but offer comments on the connection you feel to your audience. If you are comfortable telling a funny story, do so. If you are not, or if the mood is one of solemnity, then speak about the urgency of your message. These comments may seem ad lib, but you can script them in advance to deliver them as if they were off-the-cuff.

Of course, some skilled presenters actually do shake hands with audience members prior to taking the stage. They do it moments before the audience files in or as they take the stage. Politicians are adept at doing it. For a speaker, it is an energizing experience and also helps to break the ice with the audience.

Presenting effectively can be a huge challenge for many of us. But learning a few simple techniques about connecting with the audience can go a long way toward establishing a platform for confident delivery, and more importantly putting the audience in a mood to listen to you. Most importantly, it affirms your leadership strengths and gives people a reason to follow your lead.

John Baldoni is an internationally-acclaimed leadership consultant, speaker and author of seven books on leadership, including his newest, Lead By Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results (AMACOM, 2008). Website: www.johnbaldoni.com. Contact John.


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