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Today I will write about why you as a speaker should speak to the back of the room, but network with the first row if you want to succeed both with your speech and your speaking business.

The reason you speak to the people sitting in the back of the room is that they are the most critical and sceptical people in an audience. Remember how, when you were in school, the “tough guys” would sit in the back, right hand corner of the classroom? It’s the same with an audience of adults at work. When you realise that you understand that you need to focus your attention on the back rows. If you get the “sceptical and critical crowd” against you everything becomes harder during the speech, and the evaluations of your speech will go down, because the people in the back will influence the rest in a negative way.

Another reason to speak to the back of the room is that the further away an audience member is from the speaker, the less obliged they tend feel to pretend to be paying attention. It’s always the people in the back who are the first to pick up their phones and check Facebook if they find the speaker boring, for example.

If you can keep the people in the last few rows inspired, engaged and happy the chances are very big that the group as a whole will like the speech.

(This, of course, doesn’t mean that you ignore the rest of the room, it’s all about understanding who in a group you have to have on your side.)

The metaphor you can use it to think of your message as water – If you focus on sprinkling water on the people in the front of the room, the people in the back will not get wet, but if you try to sprinkle the people in the back the people in the front will get wet as well.

While the people in the back might be the most important to catch during the speech, the people on the first row are the ones you need to focus your attention on before and after your speech.

So who sits on the first row during a speech? The funny way to answer that question is “no-one”. It is amazing how the first row so often is mostly empty – it’s like people are afraid to sit there because they think they might be pulled up on stage or something. In a concert people love to stand in the front row, during a speech most people try to avoid the front row.

But even if the front row is mostly empty it is still the “VIR” – the “Very Important Row”.

And that is because the people who do tend to sit on the first row are the VIPs, the top management, the most important people in the room. And those are the people you want to network with as a speaker.

The good thing is that you as a speaker also sit on the front row before your speech, since the organisers want to know where you are before you go up and speak (makes them comfortable), so that is easy for you to get up on stage (convenient for you) – and because you are seen as a VIP (enjoy the special treatment that comes with this job.)

So when you sit there and wait for your speaking slot to begin make sure you talk to the other people next to you. Those are the senior leaders who will book you for other speaking assignments if you do a good job.

Today, for example, I was speaking at the Prudential Learning Festival in Singapore. A few hundred people had gathered in the auditorium for a day of learning. I was the opening keynote speaker, after a short introduction by the CEO.

Before the speech I was sitting in the front row talking to the CEO chatting about his vision for the company. A couple of other people come up and sat next to us. I could tell they were senior leaders by their body language and confident presence and leaned over to introduce myself. I also got up and got two copies of the five copies of my book that I had planned to give away during the speech and give those two copies to the bosses.

We chatted for a while before the conference begun and one of them said: “Oh, so you are the speaker, I thought perhaps you were from the global HQ because I had not seen you before.” (A perfect example of how people think that the people who sit on the first row must be a VIP and since he did not know me he assumed I was from global HQ.)

I delivered my speech and it went well.

Two days later I get an email from the assistant of one of the two bosses who says: “My boss heard you speak two days ago and wants to book you for another conference that he is organising two weeks from now. Please confirm your availability.”

Just like that. Another booking. Without even asking about the fee.

Would I have gotten the booking without introducing me to the bosses before my speech? Most likely, but let’s just say it did not hurt.

The thing to remember is that you network with the VIP but you speak to the whole group, because no matter how much the bosses likes your speech, they still will not book you again if the feedback from the group was not positive.

So win the group. But talk to the people on the Very Important Row.

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Today, while I did a speaker mentoring session with Khaleelulla Khan, I got a question into my head:

When you are trying to sell your speech, who are you selling it to?

There are two ways you can look at selling your message:

1) You are helping people get a better life/career
2) You are helping businesses improve – by helping their managers learn about some aspect of business or leadership.

You are either on the side of the employee – or the company.

But then there is the third way: This is when the company is helping its employees get a better life/career.

It’s the same when you are writing a book. (A book is more or less just research for a speech nowadays anyway.)

1) You are writing a book people buy with their own money – because they decided they want to become better at something in their life.

2) You writing a book that top managers buy because they want to know how to develop their people to improve business

3) You write a book that the top management buys and give as gifts to all their people because the managers want their people to become better at something.

In scenario 1 you sell a few books (people really do not like to part with their hard earned money)
In scenario 2 you sell a few more books as companies buy in small quantities to give to top managers
In scenario 3 you sell the most amount of books as you now get the company to buy books to all the employees.

Take a subject like “creativity”

In scenario 1 you write a book called something like “Live a creative life.” (good for the individual)
In scenario 2 you write a book called somethings like “How to develop a creative culture” (good for the company)
In scenario 3 you write a book called something like “Think in new ways” (good both for the individual and the company)

When the book is out you go on a speaking tour:
In scenario 1 you are speaking at public events
In scenario 2 you are speaking at small events for the top management
in scenario 3 you are speaking at the big corporate events where they have assembled all employees.

There is no “right or wrong” here of course. Do it right and you can sell million of books in category one, or get millions of people to sign up for your speeches at public events.

But for a speaker wanting to build a solid speaking career and have a solid market to sell books directly to his or her clients then category 3 is probably the strongest.

I have written books in all three categories and my most successful book, by far, has been The Idea Book which falls very well into category 3.

As a speaker you can choose to be in any of these categories, you can even choose to work with more than one.

The purpose with this post is to get you to think about what your strategy is.

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Today I had the joy and privilege to go and attend a performance at my son’s Kindergarten. (I love that I, as a speaker, have job with such freedom that I can decide to take some time off in the middle of the day to go see my son perform.)

The class was performing a play about nature that they had written themselves. (Summary of the message: We need to be nice to animals and we need to stop cutting down trees…)

My son had gotten the role of the tiger, but also one of the roles of reading the story line to the audience of about 100 people.

As a father I was proud as a rooster.

As a speaker I was impressed with the quality of their performance.

Watching my son on stage became a lesson in the simple, basic rules of communicating a message.

Sometimes when someone is getting all tied up in complicated phrases trying to explain something it can help to stop them and say: “Tell it to me as if you are explaining it to a six year old.”

And sometimes I think we might over-complicate the business of delivering a speech. So todays post is about what a 6-year old can teach us about speaking.

This is what my son taught me today.

1) Speak clearly.

Many adult speakers seem to think that to get your message across you need to speak loudly, as if speaking loudly makes people hear you better.
That is not true. If anything a speaker speaking to loudly makes the audience stop listening to you – and makes the sound guy frustrated over having to constantly adjust the volume of your mic.

What my son showed me today was that it’s not about being loud – but about being clear. As he read the words from his script he pronounced them with such crispness and sharpness that he had the attention of every, single person in the room.


2) It’s not about you.

Hearing my son read the text about how the “hunters were killing all the animals” I could sense that there was not a single thought in his head about any inner voice going: “Is my fly open?”, “Are they listening to me?”, “I wonder what they are thinking of this?” etc. He was there to deliver his lines.

And you are there to deliver yours.


3) Be short and concise.

The full dialogue of the section where my son was acting out his message about the trees was him and his friend walking up to the middle of the stage, looking out at the audience and saying:

“Stop cutting down the trees!”

Then they walked back to the side of the stage and sat down.

Message delivered…

Speakers are often given one hour for a speech almost like it’s a habit. Like it’s a law that a speech has to be an hour. Most speeches do not. I wish more organisers of conferences realised that a 45 minute speech is often as effective as a 1 hour speech, and a 45 minute speech can often be delivered in 20 minutes. If anything that is what has shown us.

So the next time you are asked to give a speech, ask yourself: “How quickly could I deliver this message with maximum effect?” and then ask for a speaking slot that long. Or should I say “that short”.


4) Have fun

It’s just a speech.
Or in their case: it’s just a play.

A few seconds after performing they were happily celebrating a classmates birthday. A few minutes before the play they were goofing around.

Giving a speech, or a performance, is something fun. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Have fun doing it.


5) It’s not about being perfect – it’s about being authentic

They say practise makes perfect, and they do have a point. But practice, too much practice, also risk suffocating the spur of the moment, real life, authenticity that comes from just being in the moment.

Those kids today were not perfect in their delivery – but they were being in the moment – and there is nothing more perfect than that.

6) There is nothing to be nervous about.

Many adults would be terrified to go up infront of 100 strangers to speak, not to mention to go up and perform a play that they had written themselves, dressed as a tiger …

My son was totally oblivious to the idea of being nervous. I was biting my tongue after the performance as my adult brain wanted to ask him: “So, were you nervous?!” but luckily my fathering brain stopped those words from coming out of my mouth. There is no need to start putting the idea of being nervous into his clean and innocent mind.

The sad thing is that many adults will get stressed out with angry butterflies in their stomachs for delivering a speech. Stage fright is real and many people suffer from it, but we should all be inspired by those kids on the stage and realise that there really isn’t anything to be nervous about. Go up there and deliver your speech.

Those were some of the lessons my son thought me today.

I must also add that I just love that he goes to a school – International School of Singapore – where they encourage kids as young as six to go up and present and perform at such a young age. These kids are already getting exposure to and experience of the nobel art of delivering a message – one of the most important life skills there are.

Watching the kids perform I was reminded of how, when I was six years old, my father, who was teacher and a part-time musician would bring me and my brother up on stage at his band’s concerts and have us sing a song or two with the band. The ladies in the audience loved the cute kids singing – and we liked how they would bring us small presents like a soft drink or some candy as “tips”. And I understand now that those childhood mini-concerts instilled in me a sense of confidence and a feeling of being comfortable communicating to big groups of people.

Forty and some years later that skill is now taking me around the world to speak. And that is a joy and a privilege – but still that means nothing compared to the joy and privilege of taking the day off to go and see my son perform.