Leaders: How to Alienate Your Audience in 5 Minutes or Less

As you’re preparing for your next presentation, will you engage your audience or alienate them?

Here are 5 different but surefire ways to alienate your audience… and how to avoid them.

1. “Let me tell you the same 7 stories I told you I told you at my first all employee meeting.”

That’s not a literal quote but what happened at a second all employee meeting of a new senior (like CEO) leader. He chose to use the same 7 personal stories as he did the first meeting. The outcome was disbelief, doubt and immediate lack of trust with questions: was he the right hire for this job? Didn’t he hear himself tell these before? Are there memory issues? (And WHERE is his team that supports him to tell him the truth?)

2. “I’m not going to talk about it, don’t ask about it and don’t try to find any information on it, it won’t be public like other people who have been let go.”

The head of an organization talking about about someone who was fired a week earlier, as the opening to a meeting. The audience was NOT thinking about this person when they walked into the room but they were when they walked out. (Careful about the questions from a few that you project on the many).

3  “I’m going to keep talking, and talking and talking.”

Again, not an actual quote but a CFO on an analyst call, who didn’t know how to concisely answer a key question. The outcome was a down-rated stock that lost millions (billions?) of dollars when the analysts had doubt in the confidence of the CFO’s answer. (Note: whenever you are explaining, you are losing.)

4. “I totally forgot I was meeting with you this morning. I’m really not prepared.”

A school leader in front of parents who rearranged their schedules to appear for a morning coffee briefing. Guess how that made the parents feel? (Why did we show?)

or the opposite…

5. “I prepared some remarks but I think I’ll put them aside…”

One of the most common experiences we have. A speaker has been given written remarks by a staffer but they aren’t done in a way that is digestible, in their voice, or they are no longer relevant. (If they aren’t relevant, just tell the audience what is.)

6. And a plus one: “I’m nervous talking to you today.”

Then you aren’t ready for leadership.

In the last few months, I’ve either personally seen or heard first hand accounts of these “shake your head” moments caused by legitimate leaders in consequential speaking moments. Every one of these behaviors chipped away at the speaker’s own ability to maintain trust, influence and maintain a vision. Crinkled brows, rolling eyes and confused minds I imagine were NOT among their communication goals.

If your next verbal communication moment (large or small) has a goal of building trust, changing beliefs or adopting ideas, this post is for you. If your goal is to agitate and alienate your audience, go back to watching your favorite Netflix series; I can’t help you.

Read through the following levels of alienation, I want you to decide which one is for you. (Teaser: Hopefully none of them).

Level 1: Distracted

You fail to grab the audience to “hook” them in your topic. The question you want to answer for the audience is not the same on the mind of the audience.

Audience outcome: They think about what’s for dinner or who is running carpool tomorrow. Not engaged. Message lost.

Level 2: Lost

You wander off of your core message and muddle what is a good idea inside the rambling mess inside your head. The audience may be rooting for you but get tired trying to follow.

Audience outcome:

They leave confused and perhaps with the wrong message.

Level 3: Annoyed

When you ignore the sentiment in the room and distract the audience to an emotion opposite what you were hoping for.

Audience outcome: You want them to listen to your words, instead, they are stuck in their emotions.

Level 4: Alienated

When you ignore your audience entirely by staying deep inside your own thoughts, lack of preparation or disrespect for their questions and needs.

Audience outcome: Isolated and estranged. They leave talking about how disconnected you are, worrying if you an adequate leader.

(I would suggest some may be pissed, especially if you really wasted their time.)

The slippery slope

Many oral communications you share are likely planned and deliberate. But here’s a list of scenarios that could be a gateway to an unintended result. For these, the thoughts inside your head need to be translated carefully to a deliberate message with a specific outcome for your audience.

  • Discussing a layoff or firing inside your first 90 days
  • Needing to be extemporaneous
  • Having more content than time
  • Using slides you haven’t used before
  • Delivering someone else’s message that was intended for a different audience (often inside large organizations when messages are cascaded, they aren’t revised)
  • Fielding a question you don’t know the answer to
  • Sharing a story where you are on the only one you talk about
  • Presenting when you are feeling stressed, pressured or rushed

In summary, understand that as a leader your words have consequences. Even more so the ones you say with your own voice standing in front of a live audience.

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Ruth Milligan Articulation Executive Communication CoachRuth Milligan is the Founder, Managing Director and an Executive Coach and Trainer with Articulation. She is perhaps best known as one of the original curators for any TEDx event (the license program for TED). Since 2009, Ruth has selected and coached over 200 speakers who have taken the TEDxColumbus stage. She is often tapped as an expert in the TED-style of speaking and has authored a class on how to be a TEDx speaker coach. Connect with Ruth.
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