Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone enthusiastically only to realize that your connection was lost minutes ago? Well, in public speaking, connection with the audience is lost even more often. And what do most speakers do? They just go on talking even when there is really nobody there anymore. The worst thing you can ever be as a speaker is a quack. The second worst is boring.
Almost every single time I have surveyed my presentation skills seminar audiences on their speaker pet-peeves, being boring has come out as number one. I speak more about this and some techniques to help in my free introductory e-book – The Five Deadly Presentation Mistakes and How To Avoid Them – pick it up here.
On the other hand, when asked to describe a speaker they really like or respect, my audience will often state some version of the word “engaging”. It is not surprising. I have often said that attention is the currency of persuasion. And, like currency, it is valuable due to its scarcity. Especially in what I call our current Distraction Age – the age of hand-held devices, pop-ups, Instant Messages, tweets, email, newsfeeds etc. We have as many things vying for our attention as we do for our dollars and getting people to pay attention can be as difficult as getting them to pay money. Heck! Sometimes, it’s harder!
Attention is the currency of persuasion
If you cannot get and hold your audience’s attention, you cannot persuade or even communicate with them. On the other hand, if you can engage them, you have a real shot at making a point, a connection, a deal, an impression and a difference.
So let us look at some ways you can engage your audience during a presentation. Please note that this series builds on the basics I talk about in my free mini e-book. Also, even though methods of audience engagement can range from audience surveys to conference room volleyball, this article is limited to three of the top and most widely applicable techniques. You will be hard-pressed to find a speaking situation where these will not be appropriate. Except for the most formal and sombre situations, these techniques will work.
Now, on to the three tips.
You cannot keep what you don’t have. This is also true of your audience’s attention. Your opening (among other things) must get your audience engaged.
Research shows that you have about 20 seconds to make an impression. Some investigators have actually argued that people form judgements of you in less than one second before you even start speaking. In a work presentation, colleagues might have formed their impression over the course of several interactions with you on a daily basis.
…it is harder to lose your audience after a strong opening than it is to win your audience after a weak opening.
Whatever the case, an attention-grabbing opening is essential to your success in your presentation. It sets the tone for the rest of your speech and determines how successful you will be. Put plainly, it is harder to lose your audience after a strong opening than it is to win your audience after a weak opening.
What is a compelling opening?
You will hear many different opinions on what an opening should do in a speech or presentation from introducing your subject to establishing your credibility. While these are useful, my experience shows that they are all secondary to the single most important function of your opening which is to grab attention. Therefore, simply put, a compelling opening must grab attention and pique interest. There are several ways to do this – one of my personal favourites is to use a question. You can learn more about that technique here. Meanwhile, let us consider another element that ensures your presentation is not boring.
Stories have been used as a means of education, entertainment and inspiration for millennia. Long before the invention of the radio, T.V and YouTube, people have used stories to communicate. So powerful and pervasive is the power of stories that there is a well-established psychological phenomenon among humans called a narrative bias. This phenomenon is displayed in our brain’s tendency to interpret events in the outside world as – you guessed it – a narrative – a story. We do not comprehend facts as distinct pieces of a puzzle. No, we try to fit the parts into a bigger picture – a narrative that the brain can make sense of.
If, therefore, yours and your audience’s brains interpret the world through stories, why would you not use stories to make your points clearer and more memorable? The best speakers are great story-tellers. They tell stories of the past and the present. They use their presentations to tell a story of possibilities for the future.
The best speakers are great story-tellers. They tell stories of the past and the present. They use their presentations to tell a story of possibilities for the future.
Reduce boring content, people connect with people
If your presentation lends itself to it (and there are very few that do not), then tell a story about your subject. Feeling adventurous? Why not even combine technique 1 from this article with this one and open with a story. It works like a charm when used well. Can that seven-minute chunk of your presentation with all the boring statistics and references be captured in one four-minute story about a real human being? Does that person’s story illustrate your point? Then consider using the story instead. It will be more persuasive – almost as a rule.
You will probably not do only storytelling in your presentation. But you can accomplish a lot with it and continue riding its persuasive wave long after the story is done.
In your story, include characters and plot twists where applicable. Follow a narrative arc that starts slow then builds up and finally resolves. Keep your audience engaged with cliff-hanging questions. Share emotions and epiphanies to keep them invested in the content. And make sure to resolve the suspense and link it back to your main points. Your audience will connect with the characters, with you and your message much more this way. And they will stay awake too.
Last but definitely not least on this list is humour. I left humour at the end because it is probably the most difficult to execute of the three. Humour is a high-risk, high-payoff technique for beating boredom. It can be tricky and requires an in-depth understanding of the context in which you will be presenting for you to apply the right form. That said, when used well, it is very powerful for ensuring your audience is engaged and relaxed at the same time – well worth the effort.
The longer your presentation, the more humour you will need. As a general rule, I recommend some form of humour every 7 to 10 minutes. In my experience (and in keeping with research on the subject) this is around the mark where even the most attentive people’s minds start to seriously wander. Of course, humour is only one way to refocus the audience’s attention – but it is an effective way.
Therefore, if your presentation is less than 7 minutes long, you can get away with little to no humour. If it is 15 to 45 minutes long (or longer), you need to seriously consider how you will inject humour at key points to prevent a snooze-fest. It is hard to fall asleep mid-giggle.
You can’t beat what you can’t see
The first step to beating boredom is realizing the difficult truth – most presentations will be boring unless the presenter takes intentional steps to prevent it. Adopting this mindset will help you approach your presentation objectively so that you can incorporate elements to keep the audience engaged.
To be sure, there are those “naturals” who are overflowing with personality and charisma. They can make a speech about Styrofoam as riveting as a cloak and dagger saga. But they are the minority, and as long they do not know exactly what they are doing that is working, then they cannot replicate it. In that sense, you who applies technique and sound principles, are more skilled. They may be more talented, but you are more skilled. And it is skill that has value.
Till the next article, speak with skill.