Be Present to Your Audience

My friends Sean and Kiara were standing at the alter in a beautiful church in New Westminster. I was standing just to the side of Sean, his best man, joyfully watching my friend take a beautiful woman as his wife. The priest was talking to all those assembled of love and the symbology of the ring he had just taken from my hand. As his words flowed he began to offer the ring to Sean to take, and in that moment he dropped it. It bounced twice and rolled on the stage. Not even skipping a beat the priest unapologetically broke into a joke about the fleeting nature of the universe as one of the bridesmaids retrieved the ring. Everyone laughed and a certain tension left the room. Though the spell of one moment may have been broken the audience became closer to the experience. Love and partnership are imperfect things. Why does the joining need to be perfect? By owning this moment the priest allowed all of us to make a greater investment in the ceremony.

A few year’s ago I saw the singer Hawksley Workman in concert at the Vancouver East Cultural centre (a medium sized theatre in Vancouver). Part way through his set Hawksley suddenly paused, turned toward the audience and admitted humorously that he’d forgotten the words to his song. His mirth at the circumstance was so endearing the venue seemed to shrink in size and suddenly we were sharing his living room, not a concert hall. Someone in the front row yelled out the next line, Hawksley laughed, thanked him and kept singing. I remember this concert and Hawksley’s whimsical engagement with his crowd much more than many other highly polished shows I have attended since.

Last night as I sat in the audience waiting to speak at PechaKucha Vancouver, Malcolm Parry a photographer and journalist from the Vancouver Sun newspaper started off the night in a relaxed and casual manner. He leaned on the podium and told us great stories, got behind in his slides, and forgot people’s names. Yet even through all this he was with us and we were with him. He owned his stage presence and thus his audience. It made things easier for the rest of us as presenters. We could feel how much an audience can value authenticity over showmanship.

As a speaker you don’t need to be perfect, you need to be present. Remember that there is no mistake you can make that doesn’t have the potential to draw your audience in, provided you’re still there to receive them.