AT last week's annual convention of the Professional Speaker’s Association of Southern Africa, I presented a talk via Skype on the new “smart audience”.
Giving a talk or presentation to an audience now is very different to the scenario at the turn of the century, or even a mere five years ago. Back then, a mobile phone was for making calls or sending a brief message, and it was generally accepted that the device be kept out of sight and sound during business presentations.
Today, the handset has become a smartphone. It has also become an extension of the average person’s arm, practically glued to the palm of the hand. And it is in constant use, as messages, information, instructions and research flow in and out of the device.
The result is that the “smart audience” of the late second decade of the 21st century is also an audience with a short attention span. The words of the speaker or presenter are competing with the content of social media, with the soundbite flow of Twitter, with the flow of family and friends on Facebook.
Even when speaking to the same audience as before, we are dealing with a flood of new gadgets. In just the past five years, South Africans have migrated en masse to smartphones, with most of that migration happening almost overnight.
In 2010, 4.8 million smartphones were in use in South Africa. Two years later, the number leaped to 11.5 million. And in another two years, by the end of 2014, it had reached 19 million. This year it will jump again, to at least 24 million.
That means more than one in two South Africans will be using a smartphone. Few members of any professional audience will not be using one.
On top of that, around 3 million tablets are already in use. These are devices that, unlike laptops, really can be used comfortably in a lap, switched on instantly, and used to record voice and video, or get on with work if the speaker is too uninteresting.
How does one keep the audience engaged in the face of such competition? Aside from the mission (for most of us) impossible of trying to be an awe-inspiring speaker?
It is all about the new art of conversation. That single word is the fundamental difference between the presentation of 1995 and the one of 2015. Back then, only a few speakers had learned the trick. Today, all need to get on top of it.
It's no accident the smartphone and social revolutions are coinciding – the two complement each other and accelerate the respective take-up of each. It is obvious that speakers must embrace the new tools, and become part of the changed environment rather than compete with it.
They must themselves be part of the conversation that is now happening on the floors of conference rooms while they are speaking or presenting. They must even try to guide that conversation, rather than be upstaged by it.
To start with, presenters have to understand that, in any large audience, a fair number of participants will be using Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and other profiling tools to get a handle not only on who the speakers are, but what credentials they have to make the statements they do.
As a result, they must ensure they have curated their online lives effectively. That means an informative and engaging LinkedIn profile; an engaging Twitter persona that also shares useful and usable information; an online presence that is not only about marketing but also about sharing.
In short, the job of engaging the audience begins long before the speaker takes to the stage or podium.
Engage listeners via social media
Once a presentation is under way, there are numerous ways to get listeners to engage with the talk even while they are engaged with their devices. Alert them to your Twitter handle at the start and encourage the use of a hashtag for the event or topic are basics. A promise to respond to questions on Twitter after the talk is a simple way of maintaining the conversation.
Not that a speaker has to be in social media. The greatest speakers need only their own presence. Alas, most of us need a little extra help.
Once you’re on social media, make sure you’re there effectively. If you’re on Twitter, remember the Trevor Noah dilemma.
He had posted more than 8 000 tweets, and had more than 2 million followers. The moment he was anointed to the throne of The Daily Show, someone went into his Twitter past and raked up maybe eight posts that could be regarded as offensive. From a comedian. For whom part of the job description is to be offensive.
Some media jumped on the story with glee, but it was such a spurious campaign, it quickly dissipated. The lesson, however, was that there is always ammunition to be had against a controversial speaker. Make sure what you put out there now is something you are prepared to live with in the future.
In a more benign way, your audiences are doing exactly the same thing as the muckrakers who went after Noah – and they’re doing it while you speak. If you say one thing that annoys someone, you can expect that a combination of Google fact-checking and social personality-checking is going to be roped in to challenge you.
Aside from the obvious rules of what not to do, there are many creative ways for speakers to curate their presence.
For example, a YouTube channel is one of the best adverts they can put out. But realism needs to be part of the strategy. They shouldn’t expect millions of views unless they’re doing a TED talk. Which, by the way, represents a repository of some of the best training material for aspirant speakers.
Most are already on Facebook, and they can build on that presence to enhance their careers as speakers. Oh, so Facebook is only for friends?
'Friends' are not 'friends'
It is about “Friends”, which is not quite the same thing as “friends”. Facebook’s updates all start with the question in the update window: “What’s on your mind?”, which suggests getting something off your chest. Yet, most postings are social updates, information sharing or link sharing.
“What’s on your mind?” rarely enters the equation. The question should be: “What do you want to share?” And we all interpret it that way, regardless of what Facebook is asking.
In the same way, “Friends” is a Facebook construct, which we can interpret as friends, family, colleagues, contacts or connections. For a speaker, it is a treasure trove of connections, and a great way to share and test topics and themes.
More important than any of these specifics is for professionals to explore each of the social networks themselves, and look for examples of peers who use them effectively. There is no end to great case studies available. Ignorance of what others were doing may have been an excuse in 1995. In 2015 it would be absurd.
*Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and view his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets.