Jacqui Harper MBE is one of Britain's most experienced and respected broadcasters and corporate trainers. She has anchored news and current affairs programmes for BBC TV, Sky News and GMTV...
The emotional appeal comes first for Cristina Odone. It’s what prepares the ground whenever she has to put a message across to an audience. Emotions determine how people react and receive a message. They are a natural starting point.
They are of particular importance to Cristina because of the message that she regularly carries. When she stands in front of an audience the things she has to say are sometimes unpopular and subject to ridicule.
Unashamedly she declares: “It has been a professional challenge to me to get the Christian and Catholic Church message across to a sceptical or contemptuous audience.” And this is where the first emotional weapon is used.
“The first thing to recognise,” she says, “is that you can speak to others only if you have a common link. So you appeal to their emotions, you have to play on the likeness between you and the audience. They may come to you with lots of prejudices, but once you have divested yourself of your religious or professional persona and shown them your human side, you have already built a bridge.”
As an aside Cristina relates an experience that underlined a prevailing hostility to Catholics. She recalls: “I told the anecdote when I spoke to a Christian audience at Lambeth Palace. When I first went to The New Statesman I was asked whether I could work with atheists. I said I could. However, what I was really being told was that colleagues might make fun of me because of my Catholicism.”
The human failings that a speaker exhibits are seen by Cristina as a vital part of the bridge–building approach. Not only is the Catholic faith the target for criticism and barbs, but Cristina says many non–believers regard Catholics as self–righteous. “Therefore, don’t get on your high horse,” she says. She advises that it is better to view yourself as an imperfect human being. When listeners realise the speaker has flaws too, they start to feel warmer inside. The construction of the bridge is well under way. Something in common is being established.
The process involves not assuming any common background. Cristina says: “Whether you are writing or speaking to an audience, it is important to appreciate that what you take for granted is not part of the everyday language of the people you are addressing. At the risk of sounding like a back–to–basics person, you have to strip your ideas down to the most simple common denominator.”
There is nothing more irritating than a speaker spouting jargon and assuming that others share the knowledge. Keeping the address simple and comprehensible is a must.
Every speaker, of course, has an individual way of starting a presentation. “You can only grab people with provocation. You have to excite them,” says Cristina. “In fact, you have to kick off with a surprise.”
She does not share the view of many speakers that a speech has to start with a joke. She illustrates her technique by describing how she opened an article she wrote for The Guardian.
“I had to bring people on my voyage and say why the chattering classes hate Christians. I knew I had to come up with a shocker. I was as bold as I could be. I said they hated Christians because they are fearful of them. They are scared because Christians have what they want, the key to happiness.”
However, there is more to good presentation than grabbing the audience’s attention at the outset and beckoning them over to your side. Even if the listeners don’t agree with your argument, you have to keep them interested in it. And you don’t achieve that with bland theory. Avoid abstractions, says Cristina. Tell them stories from your experience to bring the argument to life.
Many audiences have difficult customers, as Cristina has found. One example springs quickly to mind: “I had people pelting me with tomatoes once when I was speaking in Ireland. I was quite frightened, but I felt so beleaguered and embattled that I gained strength from it.”
These are the circumstances in which the speaker’s mettle is tested. The speaker has to stay cool and dignified. “There must be no snide put–downs,” says Cristina. Heckling is best taken as a challenge to which the speaker must rise.
Cristina tries to end on a note that sends people away with something to remember. She comes back to the emotional links that she works hard to establish with the audience. She says: “I am an emotional person and, though this may seem like a cheap trick, if you can land an emotional punch and reach out into an emotional area, you should.”
She has one reservation, particularly for women speakers. A member of the audience can ask questions or throw criticisms that cannot be dealt with in detail in the course of the presentation. Some speakers invite the questioner to discuss points afterwards, but Cristina urges caution. “There are some people who want to get too close to you, especially if you have a public profile. And this situation is a little more difficult for women.”