Engaging with a Device-Connected Audience

an interview with
John C. Havens Executive Vice President of Strategy and Engagement, Yoxi.tv

John C. Havens is EVP, Strategy and Engagement at Yoxi.tv , an organization that discovers and elevates social entrepreneurs by leveraging their expertise for global business opportunities.  I had the pleasure of seeing John speak at the recent BDI All Stars conference and caught up with him afterwards. Speaking 30-40 times a year, John is a real pro and has lots of great advice for those of you trying to connect with device-connected audiences.

DN: Is it harder to engage an audience than it was 5 years ago before WiFI connectivity was a conference mandatory?
Yes, because we’re all trained like Pavlov’s pups to check our devices every 14 seconds.  In that regard, there are less people standing up and walking out of presentations because they have to take a call versus email or text. But it’s critical not to let that digital zeitgeist not get in the way of my cardinal rule of presenting – make every talk a gift to your audience.  Meaning, prepare the snot out of your deck and rehearse like crazy and do your best to know the audience you’ll be speaking to.  If you do all that and imbue your talk with passion and try to connect to your audience (by looking them in the eyes, etc) you should earn the right for them to put their devices down.  Point – you’re the storyteller, so make it enchanting enough that you distract them from distraction.

DN: At BDI, at least 3/4 of the audience seemed to have a laptop or iPad open while you were speaking.  Do you find yourself wanting to say, hey turn those devices off and pay attention?
No way. Odds are, at least half of them are tweeting about my presentation and they’re helping market me in real-time! Besides, akin to my earlier answer, it’s not up to me to dictate how someone pays attention.  Before digital devices, a lot of people would take notes on a pad.  That’s how they learn.  If people retain more about a talk because they tweet, who am I to judge?

DN: Would it be worth trying to get the audience to shut down their devices momentarily while you speak?  You’d have their undivided attention but not the extended reach of their social networks.  Which should be more important to a speaker today?
If I tried to get people to shut down their devices, I might get their undivided attention, but it would be mixed with their ire at being told how they should watch my presentation.  I was an actor for years, and it’s essential to know when working with an audience who and when to try to get people to participate.  For instance, when I played a scary character in children’s theatre, I’d always direct my lines to the oldest boys in the audience – they loved the attention but I wouldn’t actually frighten them.

In terms of which is more important, an audience shutting down or getting the reach of their networks, the hope is people actually register what you’re talking about besides waiting for the pithy phrase that will make a good tweet.  But for me when I speak, the most important thing is blow them away with my presentation – that’s the only thing I have control over. The rest is up to the audience.

DN: Knowing that your audience is on Twitter while you speak, are you thinking while you write your speech—gee that line will make a great tweet?
Sure.  Or at least, “this is a good sound bite.”  Puns, sound bites, short and pithy phrases are all ways to aid in retention. Humor is also great – I’ve read cognitive studies saying that if people laugh at something you’ve really connected with them and there’s a 50% higher probability they’ll remember what you said than without humor.

Another cardinal rule of mine – never make it difficult for people to remember or share what you say.  My old acting agent used to tell me when I came back from auditions they’d call the casting directors to get feedback on how I did.  If they said, “John came in here and blew me away” or “John’s choice was way over the top but he was really passionate,” may agent was happy.  If my agent called and said, “how did John do?” and the answer came back, “John who?” that’s when I was in trouble.

DN: Are social media conferences harder to engage than say a group of accountants who aren’t necessarily trying to be the first to share what they just heard?
Every audience is different.  A hard core Social Media audience like SXSW where I spoke last year is definitely device and dialogue (to their social graphs) focused.  But a lot of times they’re the most responsive because they’re already drinking the digital kool-aid. Accountants or folks not as versed in Social Media oftentimes have a vibe/energy of, “prove to me Social Media has an ROI” before you even start talking. So my focus there is usually to not focus on the tools of the trade but the overall value proposition of connecting with relevant to your audience, wherever they get their content.

DN: You mentioned you were an actor in a former life.  This sort of gives you a competitive advantage on stage, don’t you think?
Sure.  I studied the craft of acting which includes working on your voice, dancing/movement, and projection.  But mostly good acting is about connecting with truth to the person you’re on stage with in the moment.  Meaning, you can’t be thinking, “this line will make the audience laugh” when you’re on stage or you’re dead.  You can try to make a joke, but every audience is different.  Your job onstage is to deliver your message or story in a way that best connects to the people sitting in front of you RIGHT NOW.  If they don’t seem to be getting your message, use techniques like saying, “Does that make sense?” after you make a point.  Or say things like, “anyone else heard of SIRI?” and raise your hand, indicating for them to raise their hand.  People don’t mind audience participation if you genuinely seek their response and aren’t a tool.  What you should NEVER do is single someone out and alienate them, ala standup comedian mode.  Or, if you’re going to try and do that, prove that you’re making them part of the act versus the butt of a joke – say something like, “Hi, what’s your name?

DN: Do you get any feedback from these events and if so, why kind of adjustments have you made based on this feedback?
I don’t get as much specific, actionable critique as I’d like.  My old acting teacher was great at this stuff and I recommend this practice technique for any speaker – record yourself rehearsing your presentation.  Odds are you’ll see that you flap your hand with nervous tension, or scratch your head every 30 seconds.  You have to identify these nervous tics so you can get rid of them and focus all of your energy on speaking in the moment.

I have gotten some good advice on talking about technology.  Years ago, someone told me they liked what I said but didn’t get the context of my presentation.  I delved right into talking about specific social media tools without providing a backdrop for what an audience learned.

So in that sense I try to always do the following:

  • Research who I’m speaking to (marketers, digital savvy or no, what level of the organization, where are they geographically based).
  • Make sure I review the expectations of my talk (what’s been advertised) before I being working on my presentation.
  • Find a bookend for the STORY of my talk. Don’t just list facts – what is the POINT you’re trying to make?
  • Remind people throughout my talk what I’m talking about.  I’m a big believer in the old adage about what makes a good presentation: Here’s what I’m going to talk about, here’s what I’m talking about, here’s what I just talked about.  Less points made well makes for a more memorable presentation than a zillion factoids.

My last bit of advice – change the world with your talk.  Why get up and talk in front of a group if you’re not wildly passionate about your subject matter?  Pretend you’re at a bar talking to friends, or with your family telling stories around the campfire.  This is not about being hokey – it’s an acting technique you need to hone or don’t get up on stage.  If you aren’t completely excited to tell everyone your message, why should your audience be excited to listen?

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