Public speaking has certain taboos.
I once watched a governor deliver a State of the State speech, trying to shore up citizens during a difficult time for the state and the country.
The address itself was mostly on target, addressing important issues and allowing the governor to showcase leadership and poise.
That is, until a member of the audience sneezed. The sneeze itself wasn’t remarkable, but the “Bless you,” that followed was. Why? Because it came from the podium.
Though the intention may have been to appear folksy or approachable or even just considerate, the effect went far, far beyond that. Instantly, the governor shattered any aura of leadership, reducing our esteemed dignitary to the status of, well, everyone else.
Sure, deep down, we know governors and presidents and all public speakers are mere mortals. Yet when they’re standing before both chambers of the legislature or even just at the front of the room, we assign them special status. In return, we expect them to embrace it.
The next time you’re at the front of the room, be aware of the special role you’re filling for the audience, and “own” it.
Specifically, here are four behaviors you’re probably better off skipping if you want to preserve a commanding leadership presence:
1. Speaking directly to any one member of the audience. Don’t break from your remarks to acknowledge sneezes, coughing or other bodily functions. For that matter, don’t engage in any conversation with a lone audience member. Every audience member is making you the focus of their attention. Make sure they feel you’re returning the favor.
2. Clapping. Although it’s OK to solicit applause for something or someone from the podium, don’t take part. You’ve done your job by rousing the crowd; now just stand back, smile, and look pleased. Not only will you spare the audience the ear-splitting sound of hands clapping into a microphone, you’ll appear more poised.
3. Scolding bad actors. It’s acceptable to refocus a noisy crowd once, but if you spend any more time than that asking people to pay attention, stop talking or mute their phones, you’ll come off like a frustrated lunchroom monitor. Stay authoritative, and let someone else assume the role of “mall cop.”
4. Managing the logistics. It’s the speaker’s job to awe the audience with great content, not to make sure the mic levels are recording studio perfect or that seats are re-arranged to accommodate latecomers. Once you begin, focus on engaging the audience and let your host, the AV crew or even another audience member tend to logistical details.
None of this is to say that you should assume an air of superiority. Not at all. It’s crucial that all speakers connect with their audience, but do so with powerful content and well-rehearsed delivery-not by answering every sneeze with a “Gesundheit.”
Christina McKenna is founder and president of Bluestone Executive Communications, where a version of this article first appeared.