10 Ways to Capture (and Keep) Your Audience

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I once observed an esteemed surgeon deliver the keynote address to an audience of medical practitioners at a yearly conference. He spent forty-five minutes bludgeoning audience members to death with the driest, most data-and-graph-laden Power Point presentation I have ever seen, in a voice that droned like a bumblebee. By the time he was done, the audience looked like this:

The kicker came when I later overheard the doctor complain about how inattentive the audience had been. It was all I could do to refrain from sharing with him the one truth I’ve learned from performing in front of countless audiences over the course of several decades:

The responsibility for keeping your audience engaged is yours. Period.

It’s not your audience members’ fault if they fall asleep, retreat into silence, or escape into their smart phones. So don’t blame them (although, like the surgeon I described, you’ll be tempted to).

Granted, sometimes circumstances really do make it more difficult that usual for you to keep an audience listening and engaged. This can happen if your speaking slot happens to follow that of a crashingly boring speaker like the aforementioned surgeon; when you are giving a talk after your audience has had an especially heavy lunch or an extremely late night coupled with a very early morning; or in the rare occasion when your audience has been drinking copiously and for far too long at the open bar, and has devolved into a surly, unruly mess. I’ve experienced all three of those scenarios, and live to tell about them.

Most of the time, however, your audience is a neutral slate, there for you to tickle into aliveness. Here are a few suggestions from my own toolkit to help your audience be engaged with you from start to

10 Ways to Capture (and Keep) Your Audience

1. Use vivid, descriptive language. Painting rich, detailed images with your words helps keep your audience involved. So does varying your cadence and the tone of your voice. Make sure to repeat and restate (three time’s the charm) your most important points. Move more quickly through what’s least important, slow down and emphasize what’s most important.

2. Use visuals: Though I use Power Point slides rarely, carefully and judiciously, I make sure to use eye-popping images with vibrant colors when I do (with few, if any bullet points and words, large bold text and lots of white space). I love incorporating personal photos into my presentations, like images of me as a kid that make people laugh or take them by surprise. I also use like to use colorful, unusual props that catch people’s eyes and attention.

3. Vary Your Playing Area: Think like an actor (or a director, actually) and fully incorporate the playing area (the stage, platform or floor space) in which you’re working. When I’m conducting a training, for example, I often move from the front of the audience to the back and sides of the room. Varying my placement in the room not only keeps people on their toes, it allows me to interact more personally with a greater variety of people, making everyone feel more included.

4. Ask questions: I love asking questions that get my audience to have an inner shift of some kind. If I start my presentation by asking a startling question that’s hooked to the theme/intention of the presentation, and encourage audiences to actually respond to it (which means taking the time to listen), it lets members of the audience know “This is going to be a participatory experience, and you’re invited to play!”

5. Use call and response. Think like a revival preacher and train your audience to finish key phrases for you. For example, you call out “If at first you don’t succeed…” and your audience replies “try, try again!” This is a terrific way to make important points stick. And it’s fun!

6. Change up the energy: One of the best teachers I ever had was my Algebra teacher, Mr. Sobel. He always seemed to sense when his students were getting bogged down by information and getting sluggish and tired. And so he never failed to leap in at just the right time with one of his famous jokes. He’d make a dead stop in the middle of a lesson and start spinning out a joke with great delight. We’d have a collective laugh, relax a little, and then dive back into the lesson with renewed vigor. Mr. Sobel demonstrated the necessity for you to be conscious of the mood or tenor of your audience. If your audience is struggling to keep up with you, or is starting to nod off, it really is your responsibility to change things up and wake them up again.

7. Get physical: And speaking of changing up the energy, getting your audience to do something physical, like standing up, jumping up and down or clapping there is a great way to wake them up and change things up. And, of course, the more awake they are, the more receptive they are.

8. Talk louder. Talk Softer. Shut up altogether: You might be surprised to discover how much raising the volume your voice unexpectedly can shake your audience awake. You might be even more surprised to discover how effective a sudden drop in the volume of your voice can be, encouraging your audience to lean in and listen to you. And if you dare to stop talking entirely from time to time, you'll discover just how powerful silence can be. I make sure to be silent for a moment after I’ve delivered an important point, so that my audience can have a few moments to think about what I’ve just said.

9. Use interactive exercises: I am an extremely interactive speaker, whether I’m delivering a keynote to 600 people or a training to twelve. I believe that people learn by doing, and so I make sure to layer in interactive exercises and experiences that get people to engage directly with me or with one another in small groups or pairs. That includes bringing a volunteer onto the stage from time to time– there's usually always somebody out in your audience who likes the spotlight and is willing to get up in from of everyone and be silly or vulnerable, depending on what you’re going for. The more willing I am to break that invisible fourth wall between myself and my audience, the more they feel they get to know me, and the more memorable my presentation becomes. Which is why I also love to play Oprah by grabbing a handheld microphone, stepping off the stage, and encouraging audience members to share their feelings or opinions on a point I’ve just made.

10. Give a gift or inducement. I always reward a volunteer with a gift (usually one of my books or CDs, which is also a good way to subtly market my wares). And I’m not above using a gift as an inducement if I’m having trouble recruiting a volunteer.

Remember,: Your audience's engagement with you is in always direct proportion to your commitment to engage with them!

Excerpted from Transformational Presence: A Self-Study Program For Maximum Impact and Influence on the Speaking Platform by Eleni Kelakos. Copyright 2014, The Eleni Group. All Rights Reserved.