(Hand)Shake Up Your Presentations

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Like you, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about handshakes.

Supposedly, they began in medieval times as a way to prove that you were not carrying a weapon. I’m not sure how useful this might have been even back then since … surprise! … the dagger is in my left hand.

In any case, and given that today even most lefties are unarmed, it strikes me that handshakes are of little practical value. And, when you think about it, a tad creepy.

You walk up to somebody you’ve never met and five seconds later, you’re touching each other. I didn’t even kiss my future wife until the third date and here I am rubbing body parts with some guy on an elevator who just started chatting with me two floors ago.

More recently, things have gotten even more complicated…

I meet you in your office, we shake hands.

I meet you on a basketball court, we bump fists.

I meet any male under the age of 30 and I’m obligated to enter into a “bro hug,” an always awkward maneuver during which we shake hands and, without letting go, embrace.


I have no idea what the next generation will come up with but I can only assume it will involve face tattoos and Instagram.

Handshakes aside, the truth is, modifying what you do depending on the situation and audience makes sense, particularly as it involves public speaking.

Which is why my first question, anytime I am invited to speak to a group is, “Where’s my check?”

I’m kidding. My first question is, “Who will be in the audience?”

That matters because regardless of the topic, if you don’t know who you are speaking to – and if you don’t modify what and how you communicate to match that – you’re going to have a hard time connecting in a way that is both clear and compelling.

Some things to consider…

    • How old is the audience?

      If I’m speaking to a middle aged audience, jokes, stories and references to things like children, home ownership, and getting old, are both appreciated and understood. These things help people connect with me personally and, since I am tapping into our common experience, it makes the business message easier for them to understand and remember.

      Try that same approach with a bunch of college undergrads, on the other hand, and you’ll be met with blank stares and a barrage of poorly hidden smart phones under the desk.

    • How much do they already know about the topic?

      We’ve all endured speakers who, while clearly smart and well versed in a given topic, are unable to translate that knowledge into something that the casual observer (i.e., non-industry expert) can understand.

      Remember, your job as a speaker is not to impress people – it’s to teach them something. Industry acronyms and “inside baseball” references are fine, provided your audience is equally up to speed.

  • Why are they here?

    In my experience, the best audience is one in which everyone has paid, out of their own pocket, to attend. They are there voluntarily and are eager to listen. That’s why I love speaking to small business owners and solos.

    The further you move from that ideal – corporate off-sites, conferences targeted to people with jobs, guest speaking in a college course – the “tougher” the crowd becomes.

    Now, instead of starting at “eager,” they start at “show me why I should pay attention to you.” 

    As a result, when speaking to this latter group, I focus my preparation as much on delivery as on the meat of the content itself. I know that if I don’t get their attention right from the start (did somebody say “storytelling”?), it won’t be long before I’m talking to myself.

Here’s the bottom line. You may never come to love public speaking. But by paying close attention to the makeup of the audience – and adjusting accordingly – you’ll increase both your own comfort level and the effectiveness of your communication.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you ever hire somebody with a face tattoo?
  1. Would you feel differently if it were a tattoo of your face on their face?
  1. What do you like to know about the audience prior to giving a talk?

Share your comments below!

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8 thoughts on “(Hand)Shake Up Your Presentations

  1. Steve Church

    1. Well – I know it sounds weird but I might be more likely to employ them. I’m a soft touch and is be thinking, ‘you poor thing. no-one’s going to give you a job. I’d be listening to them really carefully, looking for reasons why I should Emily them- not why I shouldn’t. I know. I’m an idiot.

    2. I’d feel even more sorry for them and give them the job as soon as the walked tgrough the door.

    3. I do so many presentations these days. I love ’em – not sure if anyone else does. They’re usually about how to write great web content. I get hold of the attendee list first and then do some research. I look at a few of their websites. Then I pick out a few instances (and this next bit is really important) of well written / formatted content. I went to a presentation where the speaker chose bad examples of his topic and had several of his audience squirming in their seats with embarrassment. Not a great idea. Anyway, when it’s clear to your audience that you’ve diligently prepared your presentation and not just rolled out a repeat, they will love you for it.

  2. Ira Bryck

    2 thoughts:

    My personal cure for stage fright is to remember my obligation to the audience.

    While i don’t imagine them naked or focus on one friendly face, I do structure it as a discussion with them about my content, so even if a large group, get them talking with me, with my material as a set of prompts.

    It’s also helpful to breathe and stay in touch with your brain during your talk. It’s so easy to go on autopilot and be less responsive, creative and helpful.

    Also good to be aware of physical symptoms that might feel like anxiety, and not get flustered, ie “I’m in a cold sweat, but that doesn’t stop me from being helpful to this audience.”

    Re shaking hands: I shake a lot of hands on their way out, and I wonder how many colds and flus I’ve helped spread. I wash my hands really well after that.

  3. Isabelle

    Hi Michael, here I am again, seeking inspiration :). Regarding handshakes, I used to hate them, in the UK you’d say hi, but no handshake, in German-speaking countries, it’s all about the handshake. I have come to quite like them – firm handshake, soggy handshake, dead-fish handshake, glove still on hand when doing a handshake? Reticent handshake, and the bro hug handshake used by a stranger I only met when getting into the elevator as I say goodbye, they all tell me a lot about the person. I find that useful. Very useful in fact. I am leery of people who have limp handshakes, equally so of those who overcompensate by trying to squeeze your hand too tight. And what about those that grab your fingers and squeeze..? Hm. Off topic: 1) tattoo on face? Depends.. 2) my face, well then yes of course, what else could i do…..3) focus areas, interest, level of expertise, how long they have been in the industry, what they had for breakfast…I often survey them ahead of time to have a very good idea of what to talk about and what will resonate.


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