How to Captivate Your Audience (Instruction 101, Part II)


You have to give a presentation, and you find yourself wondering: “Will anyone be listening to what I say?” With time and attention in such short supply, it’s easy enough to imagine audience members checking their email, napping or, worst of all, tweeting to each other about what a snooze your presentation is.

You can avoid this by knowing how to engage your audience from beginning. Here are six tips from the experts for keeping your audience hooked during any presentation:

1. Make it interactive. Even though you’ve wisely done your homework and know what your audience is looking for, start by asking some questions. “It shows interest from your side,” says Lawrence Burgee, department chair of The Division of Information Technology at Stevenson University. “If I go home to my spouse, it’s better for me to say ‘How was your day?’ instead of just telling her about my day. It works for business associates too.”

Besides, you may learn something you need to know. John Proffitt, senior consultant at the computer support company Design-PT, was conducting a training session on a new phone system with many different features recently. He mentioned in passing that the system would allow users to send calls to a “parking lot,” where any other user could pick up the call. The audience responded immediately. “I had thought I understood how they handled calls, but I didn’t realize this would be a big hit,” he says. “I had to let the students teach me.”

2. Get buy-in. You do this by explaining up-front what your audience will learn during your session, and how this new information will benefit them. “I’ve seen too many presentations where a geeky person launches right into walking the audience through the technical information,” says Burgee. “You have to build rapport first by letting them know you’re there to help them.”

3. Speak plain English. If your audience is non-technical, they won’t react well to technology terms, even those that seem completely clear to you. “It’s easy to be passionate about new technology and wind up talking over people’s heads,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “Showing passion is good, but you have to put yourself in the shoes of your audience.”

4. Remember to “chunk.” Most people can only assimilate information in limited amounts at one time. That may be 15 minutes or half an hour or more, depending on the subject matter. You can help them by taking breaks at regular intervals and dividing your information into modules that the audience can focus on one at a time.

5. Get feedback. Asking the audience to fill out an evaluation form is a great way to find out if you succeeded in engaging their interest. Burgee also recommends following the session with lunch or some other informal gathering. “You get a lot of valuable feedback that way.”

6. Follow up one-on-one. “If I can, I walk around the location right after the class or later that day,” says Proffitt. “You can catch people one-on-one and say, ‘Is there anything you didn’t understand?’ They can ask the questions they thought were too stupid to ask in front of everyone else.”