How to engage, captivate and inspire your audience

By Pam Underdown / 01 Oct 2014

Pam Underdown advises practitioners on the best methods of delivering a presentation and communicating with an audience.

We have all sat through our fair share of mindnumbing presentations. The presentations where the speaker is, quite literally, reading each slide, line by line, in a monotone voice. The presentations where the content is so dull that we drift off – daydreaming at best, nodding off at worst. Engaging today’s audiences can be tough. Our attention span usually lasts for approximately 15 to 20 minutes before our minds begin to wander and we become distracted by our phones, or by wondering what’s for dinner that evening.
But what if you are the presenter? Perhaps you are the first speaker on after lunch, or the air conditioning has broken down and the room is hot and humid, or maybe your subject is rather dry? Ultimately, there is nothing more intimidating for a speaker than an audience who looks like they would rather be somewhere else. When you imagine yourself making your big presentation – how do you see your audience? Are they smiling at you and nodding with agreement? Or do they appear distracted? Perhaps you prefer not think about them at all, instead focusing on how quickly you can get the presentation over and done with?
Whether you are holding a team meeting, hosting a webinar, delivering feedback, speaking at a conference or exhibition, leading a training session or being interviewed by the media; effective communication is simply not possible without the interest and attention of your audience. Without engagement, it is doubtful that your audience will remember, or make use of your knowledge. In today’s fast paced society, with so many of us short on time, the ability to deliver presentations where real learning takes place is more important than ever before. I’ve been speaking to audiences, large and small, for over twenty years and I am one of those strange people who really enjoys doing so. If you have been avoiding it, remember there are many benefits to public speaking; it’s a great way to gain exposure, increase self-confidence and build upon your success. The chances are, you were asked to speak because you are the expert – and that alone should give you some confidence. Increased confidence comes from practice, and improving each time you speak in public. Here are a few strategies I have learnt from some great teachers along the way. I hope they help you to engage, captivate and inspire your audiences.

Audience interaction means you will give more, meaning your audience will learn more – remember it’s a ‘win-win’.

Start with two open questions that generate a response and therefore engagement – get your audience to raise their hands by raising yours at the same time. Tell them why you are asking for participation and feedback: incidentally this is to confirm you are teaching your audience well and they understand your message. If you don’t get feedback (we are Brits after all) you can assume that you aren’t teaching well, and you should change your approach. Ask for questions at the end of each section and not in the middle of your flow – this throws everyone off track. Remember a typical audience member actively wants to learn from you and they want you to do well – otherwise it’s just not a good use of their time.

Build in a hook from the start, just like Hollywood movies.

Find a way to capture your audience’s attention with a teaser, you could ask a question you don’t answer immediately or mention a topic that will be included later. By initially concealing a few facts, you will build suspense and anticipation, ensuring your audience is captivated enough to stay for the answers. They will also feel incomplete until you answer the teasers.

Structure your content so that it is easy to follow.

Then explain to your audience how they will benefit from your content. Why should they listen to you and why now? Each point should flow naturally based on what the next question is likely to be. Our brains learn in chunks so if you are presenting for a whole day, arrange your content into 90 minute segments and have a break in between each one. This stops you running out of things to stay and will stop you running out of time, or worse – running over time. Use your own personal experiences to explain a point. Share what process you followed to get the desired results – what your ‘ah-ha!’ moments were and what the chain of events was that led up to this point. Position your message so it speaks directly to your audience, solving their problems as you go.

Facts tell but stories ‘sell’.

Stories are a wonderful way to engage people, especially if you can ask questions that help your audience to resonate with your tale. They will relate to your message through their own personal experiences and start seeing themselves in your presentation. Great speakers can help to change the beliefs of their audience. Using belief-based statements work so well because you believe in each point, which means you will naturally deliver it with more energy, commitment and passion. Before you deliver a beliefbased statement, you must tell your audience that you are going to share something important with them. This makes sure they are present outside of their own thoughts and ready to learn. Begin by saying, “I’m going to share with you today something that I promise you, if you really listen and absorb it, will change the way you view [insert subject matter] forever.” Poor speakers simply deliver content that is interesting but doesn’t actually make a difference to their audience.

Great speakers, however, have learnt to become fantastic
story-tellers.

When you master the art of story-telling you can talk about your career, your business, your experiences and your life in a way that influences and inspires your audience to change. Since the beginning of time stories have been used to pass on wisdom; historically, tribes passed on their experience through great storytelling – not through PowerPoint presentations. 

Interrupt your audience’s thought patterns by asking questions.

I am a member of the Public Speakers Academy, where we have been told that your audience will remember less than 30% of your sentences, but more than 85% of the questions you ask. Your questions will help get your audience re-focused, stop them from being distracted and, at the same time, deepen their understanding and conviction. The best questions are ones that get your audience thinking, shock them or get their agreement. You could ask questions such as, “How many of you would agree with me on that?”

Don’t rely on your slides or visual aids alone to engage
your audience.

Use something unexpected to draw attention; a quick activity in their seats or a two to three minute video to illustrate a point works wonders.

We all learn through repetition.

Whether we are learning new habits, beliefs, values and skills, all are commonly learnt through repetition. Look for creative ways to repeat and revisit the same point – simply saying the same thing over and over again can be frustrating for audience members.

Change your tone of voice and vary your speed and volume.

When you change how you say something, it has a big impact on your message. Start your presentation in a conversational tone then as you move into your main content use contrasting tones to highlight certain points.

Make sure your eye contact is with individuals.

Do not sweep the room using ‘aerosol eyes’; connect with one person per sentence and then move on to the next. The more people you look at directly and talk to personally, the more people will feel naturally connected and drawn to you.

You will never work out what your audience is thinking, so don’t try to.

Don’t allow your performance to be affected by the mood or energy of your audience. Be mindful of the distractive, moody and miserable audience members but focus on the people you can resonate with. This will enable you to deliver your presentation in a more positive manner.

Decide what you are going to say and then ask yourself if you really need a slide to say it.

Don’t ‘click and read’ as most speakers do. Always be one step ahead of your slides, don’t use them as prompts; instead start by saying a few things about your next point, before you reveal it. Doing it this way means that curiosity and anticipation levels are high and there is motivation and interest in your next slide.

Your movement must be purposeful.

The bigger the audience the bigger your gestures must be. Stop to make a key statement, and deliver your most important lines by standing still in the centre of the stage and looking directly at an audience member. Do not pace up and down the stage, it can make you look nervous and make your audience feel dizzy.

Humour is an effective audience engagement technique, but only when it is used naturally and appropriately.

Humour will make your audience more relaxed and responsive. However, it is important not to confuse humour with comedy. There is nothing more uncomfortable than a long, awkward, unnatural joke. Some of the funniest people simply comment on how they see what’s going on around them and it’s their unique perspective that is humorous; although do make sure that the only person you make fun of is yourself.

Never say something on stage that you wouldn’t say in a one-to-one conversation.

Be the same person, be congruent and don’t put on a ‘stage voice’. By using a conversational tone you will be able to maximise your energy and not wear yourself out. Your audience will also see you as a more approachable and reliable person.

After you finish speaking, ask your audience for feedback.

This is the best way for you to improve as a speaker. Find out what the audience have learnt from your presentation. Did it meet your goals? What did they like about your talk? What could you improve on?

Remember to take the time to recognise your success.

It may not have been perfect, but chances are you’re far more critical of yourself than your audience is. Everyone makes mistakes during speeches or presentations. Look at any mistakes you made as an opportunity to improve your skills. Taking on any challenge is empowering and public speaking represents another opportunity to grow and achieve success. Every time you speak, you improve. It’s a boost to your confidence, so make sure you approach your next presentation with an attitude of curiosity and fun.

Good luck and happy speaking!

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