There’s an exercise I’ve used with teams that on the surface is about public speaking – but it is also a lovely metaphor for presence and influence. Ronnie Heifetz developed it for his class at Harvard Kennedy School many decades ago and I have used it with superintendents, legislators, undergrad and graduate students, nonprofit executives, and more. I channel the three rules at the core of the exercise when I speak – both publically and in smaller groups.
The exercise starts by asking a volunteer to read something short they have written and adhere to three rules:
- Be with your audience
- Make every word count
- Allow for silence.
I know, when I first heard them, I thought they were trite, New Age, silly. Then I went through the exercise, in which one practices a line or few lines, again and again, trying to follow these three rules. The transformation I have seen, as participants experiment with this is powerful. Speaking with a connection to your words and your audience, having and commanding presence, is powerful. This may be something that has to be experienced, but let me try to explain the three rules.
Be with your audience means to take the time to connect with everyone in the room (or at the table) before speaking and as you speak. In a public speaking context, it means waiting to start. Looking around the room. Commanding attention, exuding calm and control, and “holding” the room with your silence. As you speak, look around the room at individuals; notice who is engaged and who is not, connect with your eyes, body, and words.
Make every word count means to think about each word or phrase as you speak. Put emphasis on the words that have particular meaning, change your pace accordingly, pause when needed. Commit to and connect emotionally to the content of what you are saying. Think about and feel each word.
Allow for silence means to use silence to accent a particular line or phrase that it important. Pause. Look at your audience. Be comfortable with silence. Use it judiciously for it can be powerful. (I tried this during our wedding vows and Paul thought I had forgotten a line – oops.)
Try these three rules when you next speak. Experiment in a small group. Focus on these if you present publically. There is power in emotional connection and presence.