Most research indicates that 40-65% of any audience primary information processing is visual. This means if you don’t give them something to look at or see, they will be visually imagining what you are talking about. As you look out into your audience, some people may look like they are daydreaming. Half of them probably are–some related to what you are talking about and some not! This is why it is essential that you offer them something to see that relates to what you are speaking about.
When you consider that 65% of people are visual learners, 90% of information that comes to the brain is visual, and presentations with visual aides are 43% more persuasive, it makes sense to use content types which people have an innate psychological resonance with.
The most obvious in the screen driven environments most of us speak in, of course, are images and video clips on the screen. I have learned the hard way that these images and videos need to be checked out by a very well trained IT person. Different images project differently with different systems. What might look fabulous on your computer screen as you prepare might be completely inadequate projected on a large screen in a larger venue. And even in small venues, the font type and size might not translate well. A talented IT person can help you maximize the use of finding, and formatting images and videos. It is also helpful to get feedback about images and videos from others who are representative of your audience before you use them. An image or video that really connects for you might not have the same effect with your listeners who are not as steeped in your subject matter. Getting feedback from two or three people more like your average listener is worth taking the time to find and get.
But there are other ways to engage an audience visually. A prop placed well on the stage can enhance what you are saying and the visual experience of the audience. Paintings on an easel, pottery or large objects on a table, photos hanging from the ceiling, objects you can hold but that are large enough for the audience to see held up at just the right time are powerful ways to focus your audience. I recently spoke to an audience about ordinary people growing up to experience extraordinary life. I had a painting of myself when I was a poor little urchin living in the boondocks of northern Minnesota. As I told my story as an example of ordinary to extraordinary, the painting was on an easel in the background the entire time and I just looked at it and pointed to it several times as I spoke.
Don’t forget your clothing
What you wear matters. A patterned shirt or pant or skirt can be very distracting. Words on a shirt, unless they pertain to your subject matter will distract throughout your talk. Too low, to short, too tight, too big, too anything should be avoided. Clean and neat are critical. Well coordinated colors that enhance your skin tone are highly recommended. For this, once again, it pays to consult with someone who knows style and color.
A general principle is to dress just slightly better than the majority of your audience. A t-shirt and board shorts and sandals might be fine for a beach city youth group. However, if you are invited to address the teachers and principles of the local school in the same city you might consider nice jeans, khakis and a nicer shirt and a casual shoe rather than a sandal.
Accessories are in. Currently, especially for women, big bold jewelry is popular. The goal is to have your audience thinking about your subject not your jewelry. Something that is attractive to wear out in public can be distracting when you are speaking. Accessories that are coordinated to fit your attire and smaller are better for speaking unless you are selling jewelry!
And before you leave home a final visual check is essential. Zippers up? Buttons not popping and pulling? And, finally, for the speaker, comfort is absolutely a must. You do not want to be distracted by pulling and twisting and adjusting any of your clothing or jewelry. If you are distracted by how it feels or what your clothing and accessories are doing, so will your audience. A mirror or spouse or roommate to give you this feedback is worth taking the time to check in with. Taking time for a second check just before you go on to speak is also highly recommended, especially if you just used the bathroom. I once saw a speaker step on stage with a string of toilet paper dragging under one shoe. Yes. Check everything before you step on stage.
Other visual types will be distracted by visual stimuli in and around the environment you are speaking in. This makes what is behind you when you speak very important. If there is not an actual stage, choose carefully where you speak from to minimize distraction from anything behind you. If there are windows, ask the venue coordinator to make sure chairs are arranged to minimize people staring out them! Speaking in the Rockies in a lodge with large windows facing the mountain range is going to present a challenge for the best speaker. If chair arrangement cannot minimize this then you will need to think of ways to use the beauty of the view to your advantage. You will also have to work more intentionally to give them images that focus them inside the room related to your topic. If there are things on the walls or on display that can be temporarily moved or put away, ask your host to do this. Environment is very important. It does not require large fancy venues to enhance your speaking. Small simple venues, if evaluated and rearranged and enhanced with props and other images can make a huge difference in the reception and retention of your speaking.
Remember, your audience is more than ears.