How To Properly Engage Your Audience During Public Speaking
So, what do you do when you feel like your audience is not fully engaged during your presentation, when it seems as if your speaking world is crumbling all around you? How do you react? Do you: (1) Ignore the signs, drop your chin, and barrel ahead? (2) Conclude that the audience is the problem? (3) Just talk louder and faster? (4) Disregard the audience and conduct a titillating monologue with your notes or with your PowerPoint slides? Or (5) wrap it up quickly, dart away, and hope to preserve a smidgen of dignity? None of those choices bodes well for your long term speaking prospects.
The correct answer: get attuned to the members of your audience and the messages they are sending you, and react to those messages. Here are eight excellent ways to accomplish that:
1. Eliminate disruptions. If something or someone is interfering with your message, pause and address the problem. Crossing your fingers and wishing the problem away, talking louder, or simply ignoring the issue never helps. Ask the industrious waiters who are banging dishes to stop, or the buffoons in the third row who are yakking to put a lid on it. Politely suggest that you might bop them with a wooden spoon if they refuse. Your listeners will appreciate it, and you will increase the probability that your message will be received. Taking control of distracting situations also demonstrates that you are confident and that you are concerned about your listeners’ ability to hear your important message.
2. Solicit questions. Audiences today want and expect an interactive presentation, and they are typically eager to participate and share ideas. Straying from the script is an exceptional way to accomplish that and to minimize confusion. But here is the stipulation: solicit questions only if you are willing to listen to them. Don’t start thinking about what you will say next while the questioner is speaking. If you begin responding before you have a clear understanding of the question, you will gain little insight, probably alienate a few listeners, and merely compound your problems. Pause, listen, process, and only then respond.
3. Refer to a specific audience member or event. Periodically refer to someone in the audience by name (assuming that you won’t embarrass him): “I was speaking to Mr. Big Wheel this morning about your competitor’s products.” And also refer to recent events that occurred in the organization, such as a banner year in sales, an industry honor, or an upcoming retirement. Gather information about your audience from various sources. If you demonstrate that you have gone out of your way to customize your message for that particular audience—in other words, that this is not just another “canned speech”—you heighten your listeners’ interest and enhance your credibility.
4. Pause to allow for laughter and emotions. If your listeners are laughing, stop talking and let them laugh. Savor this moment, because at other times the silence after your witty lines can be deafening. If some listeners are emotionally upset, honor that moment as well. Pause and acknowledge their feelings: “I know this is upsetting to some of you, and that is understandable.” Pausing and allowing for an emotional response shows that you respect your listeners, and it also gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.
5. Take a short break. If it appears that the energy in the room is waning (gaping yawns, glazed looks, snoring), take a short break. Encourage everyone to stand, stretch, and check her neighbor’s pulse for signs of life—you get the point. Don’t get your feelings hurt, because you may not be the source of the problem. People may be drowsy because it has been a long day, because the room is too warm, or because that triple cheese lasagna and Mighty Meaty pizza they ate at lunch is taking its toll. The speaking time you lose by taking a break will be offset by the heightened attention of your listeners for the remainder of your presentation. And next time, specify salads, melba toast, and caffeinated drinks for lunch.
6. Break the pattern. If your listeners seem numb (eyes are rolling back; heads are drooping; doodling is rampant), be honest: you may be the problem (I know that’s hard to imagine). Maybe your delivery has grown tedious, maybe you have overwhelmed your audience with information, maybe the topic is complex or boring, or maybe your energy has waned. Whatever the reason, it is time to change course quickly and spice it up.
What can you do? Pause, vary your pacing, change your volume or tone, move around, step toward the audience, expand your gestures, incorporate slides or videos in the program, refer to the handout, engage in some audience participation exercises, or ask questions. Do anything (within the bounds of good taste) to snap people back to attention and to refocus them.
7. Shorten the presentation. Sometimes your listeners have already sat through several presentations by the time you speak, and they are satiated with information. They have had enough, and they are sliding into full-scale shutdown. If you are facing that situation, you could be sharing the winning numbers in the Mega Millions lottery for the drawing that will occur the next day, but they don’t care and won’t listen. It’s time to employ a quick exit strategy. Try this.
Slash a portion of your prepared presentation and address only the key points. Let your audience know that you are doing this: “I was scheduled to speak for one hour, but I realize that you have already been inundated with information. So if you will just give me your attention for 15 minutes, I will highlight four points that are particularly important to you audience and then stop. If you have questions, I will be available to speak with you individually after the program, or you may e-mail your questions.” Your audience members will appreciate your sensitivity, and they will typically return the favor by focusing on what you have to say.
8. Accept the inevitable. You have tried everything to connect, but the audience vibes are still distinctly negative: locked jaws, rigid body language, heads shaking in disagreement, or—worst of all—the evil eye. What then?
First, recognize that no matter how eloquent you are, you will not always sway everyone, so stop trying. Acknowledge those who disagree with you, and thank them for their willingness to listen to your viewpoint (which, of course, as you know, is the correct one).
Second, solicit the naysayers’ input. You may not convert them to your way of thinking, but it affords them an opportunity to vent, it livens up the program, and it sends the message to everyone that you are confident in your position. But avoid this option if you feel it will result in chaos.
Finally, resign yourself to the reality that you sometimes just encounter a bad audience. Some audiences are unreceptive, grumpy, and convinced that you could not possibly have anything valuable to share with them. Smile, do the best you can under the circumstances, and go home. No presentation is final or fatal. But—and this is important— don’t use the “it was a bad audience” rationalization unless you know that you have done everything possible to guarantee an exceptional presentation.
Concentrate on connecting with your audience. Always remember the frequency that every listener is tuned to: WII-FM. You may not like the signals that the audience is sending you, and you will need to be nimble whenever you decide to deviate from your prepared comments. But if you stay focused on your audience, you greatly enhance the chances that your message will be understood and favorably received. And after all, isn’t that the primary reason for speaking?