AudienceThere have been three distinct eras of public speaking and presenting. They are all still present today, but at different levels of maturity. The third era – the era of the audience – is going to be challenging for most presenters and public speakers. It requires a new attitude. But first let’s review the first two eras of presenting and public speaking.

The era of the orator

Heyday: From ancient times to 1990s.

In this era every speech is a performance. Each sentence is carefully crafted and the speech taps into a vast repertoire of rhetorical techniques. I first learnt public speaking in Toastmasters and I learnt to speak this way – paying attention to my words, my vocal variety and body language. In one of my first posts on this blog, I described how I had to unlearn this style of presenting so that I could connect better with the audience.

Politicians and other public figures such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and now Barack Obama are classic examples of orators.

The era of the slide

Heyday: From 1990s to the future

The era of the slide began in the 1960s with the projection of 35mm slides on a slide carousel, but it didn’t take off until PowerPoint came on the scene. The era of the slide still has a way to go before maturity:

  1. Most people still consider the speaker to the best visual aid and the slides are simply an adjunct, rather than an integral part of the total presentation experience. Generally we’re still at the “radio with pictures” stage rather than the integrated “TV” stage.
  2. Slide design, despite the best efforts of Cliff Atkinson, Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte and many others, is mostly deplorable or non-existent.

Stand-out examples of “era of the slide” presentations are TED presentations and Steve Jobs presentations.

The era of the audience

Heyday: From 2000s to the future

The birth of the era of the audience has been brewing for a long time. It’s partly descended from the era of the orator and the era of the slide, but there’s been other significant influences:

1. Open Space technology

Open Space is a way of meeting in small to large groups where the agenda is co-created and developed by the participants. I first saw Open Space Technology in action during the 1990s and was blown away with the brilliance, creativity and excitement that it generated. No longer did one person have to be in charge. Nowadays the unconference movement is a great example of open space technology at work.

2. The Art of Facilitation

Facilitation as a term was coined in 1950. A skilled facilitator can lead a group to discuss issues and make their own decisions. I trained as a facilitator in the 1990s and it had a huge influence in my attitude and practice as a presenter. No longer was there this dividing line between me and the audience. It was me with a group of people who each had a contribution to make.

3. Audience expectations

Audiences are expecting a more participatory role in presentations, just as they do as citizens and consumers. The development of participatory democracy, consumer activism, mass content creation, the backchannel and the advent of Generation Y all mean that many audiences are no longer content to just sit passively listening to a monologue.

Many presenters and public speakers are adapting to this era. Gary Vaynerchuck spoke for 10 minutes in front of an audience of 1,000s at SXSW 2010 and then opened up his keynote presentation to questions. Within seconds long lines had formed behind the two audience microphones. The rest of his presentation was a fascinating mixture of honest advice, guidance, and challenge in response to the questions he was asked.

Cliff Atkinson’s most recent book The Backchannel is ostensibly about managing the social media backchannel. But it goes much deeper – Cliff starts to outline the shift in attitude that presenters will need to take on to survive in the era of the audience. Will you be ready?

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