I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Howards End, that great E. M. Forster novel from the early 20th century. If you haven’t read it, you might remember the film version from the early 90s—one of those British Merchant-Ivory films featuring gorgeous houses and lovely people with impeccable accents and clothes to die for, experiencing devastating life dilemmas. (If you haven’t seen it, and you’re jonesing for Downton Abbey substitutes, I totally recommend it.)
Why, you may ask, am I spending this hot, smoky summer thinking about an obscure English novel? Other than the escapist thing, it comes to two words, the most famous words in the book: “only connect!” That phrase has stayed with me for decades. It captures what is, to me, the essence of public speaking, and all communication for that matter.
Connecting makes us human
These days, the talks that really resonate with their audiences—that move us and even change us—do it by connecting. Not by dramatic exhibitions of the speaker’s general awesomeness. Not by whiz-bang feats of PowerPoint virtuosity. Not by what some still think are tried-and-true sales techniques. Not even by airtight argument. But by being human.
This sounds simple—and it is. Mostly. This “only connect” kind of talk means we can relax as speakers, in many ways. No need to strive for airtight perfection—today’s audiences demand authenticity and distrust speakers who seem too rehearsed, too stiff, too, well, robotic.
Look at Brene Brown’s two TED talks. They’re not conventionally perfect talks—but then look at the number of views they’ve have received, and see how many of your friends say their lives have changed by watching them. See what I mean?
What to do
But being authentic doesn’t mean you just get up and wing it. You prepare differently, but you still prepare thoroughly. Very.
How do you prepare for a talk that connects? You focus on who you hope to connect with: your audience. As you prepare your content and rehearse your talk, keep your audience front and center. Don’t start by thinking about what you know, what you want to say to them, how you’ll fix them or wow them or set them straight. Start with who they are, what they need (really—not just what YOU think they need) and how you can help them. To rephrase John F. Kennedy, ask not what your audience can do for you—ask what you can do for your audience.
A talk that connects is something that you and your audience create together. It lives in the place where you and your audience meet, and it can’t exist without them both.
Think of two separate circles—one is you, the other is the audience. Move them closer together until they touch and then overlap.
That place of intersection, that cute little center in the newly formed Venn diagram, is your talk. And both circles—you and your audience—are changed because of the magic that happens when you truly connect.