January 18, 2017

Professional Speaker Interview Series: Mark Sanborn Talks About Knowing Your Audience, Closing Strong, and Educating While Entertaining

BY Caitlin Delohery IN Professional Speaking 0 Comment

We sat down with some professional speakers and asked them about the challenges and keys to success in their profession. Here, Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, professional speaker and best-selling author, discusses knowing your audience, closing strong, and educating while entertaining.

What are your top day-to-day challenges as a professional speaker?

The number one challenge for any speaker is to be relevant to your audience.

That means that the audience believes what the speaker is talking about is important and relevant to them. We live in the age of perpetual preoccupation. When an audience member is sitting there watching you, they may feign interest. They may actually be thinking about where they’re going to have dinner or who’s going to pick the kid up from school, or when they’re filing their tax returns.

So you’ve got to find a way to do two things: know your audience and know your material.

Once you get in front of that audience, the single greatest challenge is breaking preoccupation and getting attention. You’ve got to start strong or you’re dead in the water. If you take too long — more than a few seconds — to really prove what you’re saying is relevant and valuable, you’re going to have a hard time gaining the attention of the audience going forward.

It’s not just about breaking preoccupation, it’s about keeping attention. There are three things a speaker needs to master:

1. Know your client.

You need to know your client and address the audience’s needs with your material. I specialize in leadership — in turning ordinary into extraordinary. I don’t specialize in diversity, finance, or distribution channels.

The kiss of death is trying to become an expert in your audience’s area. I know that when they’ve chosen me, they want my message. If I can make it easy for them to apply my message to what they do, then I am relevant. If I can apply the message in a context that is familiar to them, I am a hero.

Successful, high-fee speakers do a pre-program questionnaire and a conference call. Learn as much as you can about the people you’re going to be talking to. Find the intersection between their interests and needs and your material.

I love to ask this question: “Tell me about a typical day in the life of _____.” If you ask the right questions, they will give you what you need.

2. Know your material.

I used to be a DJ in college. There was the A list and the B list. Then there was heavy rotation – those were the hits. That was the music you knew if you played it, everyone would be happy.

So, after 31 years in the business, I have a vast repertoire of material. As I go through my speaker playlist, if I only tell them what I know will make them smile or laugh or catch their attention, that’s gratuitous. My goal isn’t just to entertain — it’s to help or educate them.

3. Know how to make your material relevant to the audience.

I typically have an hour, so what’s most relevant? Then I ask myself, of my material, what’s most relevant to them?

Next week I’m speaking to two groups. I need to be able to relate turning ordinary into extraordinary to people who run accounting practices. Then, the next day, take the same message and relate it to a group working in sports licensing.

The number one reason why speakers fail is lack of preparation. People think they’re prepared, but you can tell by how they do. Preparation doesn’t guarantee success but it’s the closest thing you’ve got to a guarantee in this world.

What are some of your tips for success for beginning speakers?

I have 3 tips for when you design what you’re going to say:

  1. Open strong.
  2. Be clear on two or four points you want the audience to remember. If you can’t explain those things in three sentences, then you aren’t clear on what you want them to remember.
  3. Close strong. In psychology, there is a concept known as the recency effect. If a mediocre speaker ends on a really up note, that’s what you remember. A lot of speakers mistakenly think they did well, but if they had an anticlimactic ending, that’s what people remember. You need a strong close does to harness the power of the recency effect.

Also, talk to people in the audience before your speech. Have a genuine, non-manipulative conversation. Find out a little about them and what they do. More often than not, people will say something you can tie into your presentation. This is a powerful technique. It shows you did the hard work of getting to know the audience. When you can relate to someone specifically in the audience, you’ve embedded your presentation in that group.

The hardest work you’ll do before you speak is giving the speech over and over, out loud and in your mind. The only way you become better is to do it over and over and over. You want to be so well prepared that during the middle of your speech, if there’s an interruption, you know exactly where you stopped, and you can pick right back up.

Robert Fripp from the band King Crimson teaches a high-level class for accomplished guitarists. He has a technique called The Pointed Stick. The students do a performance at end of the class in a divey kind of bar, and Robert pays someone to disrupt the performance! He’s trying to create musicians who are so accomplished that they are unflappable.

The point is, you need to be really prepared. Life throws curve balls at you. When the pointed stick pokes you, and you lose it, then you really weren’t as prepared as you could have been.

What are your predictions for the biggest trends in professional speaking in 2017?

  1. Audiences increasingly want to be part of the show. I’ve worked very hard to create interaction with the audience or get the audience involved mentally and physically, asking questions or talking to other people. In this experiential world that we live in, we don’t want to be passive spectators. We want to be more actively involved.
  2. We have very short attention spans. We live in a high-stimulus society. As a speaker, you don’t have to be bombastic or juggle or do magic tricks. But you do have to create high levels of stimulus and interest. Stories done well can do that — where the audience is so involved in what you’re saying and doing that they don’t have time to wonder about what traffic is going to be like at the end of the event.
  3. Clients will say they’re looking for actionable ideas, and then they’ll hire someone entertaining. I have found that the best of both worlds is when you can entertain and educate people simultaneously. We all learn best when we have good teachers. The difference isn’t the subject, it’s the teacher. A good speaker doesn’t have to decide: do I entertain or do I educate them? You can do both if you study your craft.

What resources or teachers do you recommend?

I’ve been involved with the National Speakers Association for over 30 years. If you’re really interested in the community and education that is necessary to become a pro speaker, it’s the best value out there.

Joel Weldon has a course called The Ultimate Speaking System. Joel has been around for a very long time and is the creme de la creme. I would unequivocally recommend him to anyone who wants to become a better speaker.

Another person I would suggest is Jane Atkinson, especially for combining speaking and performance.

Looking for more on professional speakers? Check out our entire interview series.

Are you a professional speaker? Check out karmaSpeaker.

Caitlin got her roots in inbound marketing before it got its name. As a teenager in the 90s, she promoted her independently published magazines by writing about the importance of indie publishing all over AOL. Now, Caitlin is passionate about moving people and society forward. She follows thought leaders in the National Speakers Association, the staffing industry, and all human rights movements. She loves learning and helping people learn. That’s why she writes content – to help people learn to work smarter.

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