Speakers, like executives, salespeople, managers, trainers, consultants, advisors, engineers – the whole information society, in fact – are terribly afraid of losing the attention that audiences seem to be increasingly unwilling to give them these days, and certainly not for long. Whether large or small, audiences are now objects of great fear for anyone who has to try to talk to them. At least, that’s the impression I’m getting from the comments, queries, and conversations I’ve had recently. So in order to alleviate that fear and increase the general welfare of the speaking world, here are five ways to connect with an audience fast.
1.Begin fast. Don’t, under any circumstances, introduce yourself, tell the audience what you’re going to say, preview your talk with an agenda, or – worst of all – engage in chit-chat. Just jump in, with a story. Begin with a cliffhanger. “I was hanging from a cliff off the coast of Belize, when I noticed an eyelash viper crawling down the cliff face toward me….” What’s the closest moral equivalent to a cliffhanger in your story collection?
2.Start with a nonverbal signal of connection. Your unconscious urge, when you stand in front of an audience of more than your mother and grandmother, is to be defensive. You’ll tell me otherwise, if we’re working together, but the video will prove it. You’ll hold your hands in front of your torso, you’ll frown, you’ll squint, you’ll slump your shoulders, you’ll do anything you can to hide. It’s human nature. Instead, stand tall, open up, and embrace that audience. Then start talking (see #1).
3.Then talk with your hands as much as possible. Unless you gesture like a coke addict on a high, basically you want to gesture more than less. But with this specific proviso: don’t just wave your hands around. Use your gestures to convey your emotions. As soon as you let us know that there is a lot at stake for you in your talk, we’ll start paying attention. You’ll hook us, and we’ll stick with you.
4.Interact with the audience as fast as possible. Get the audience involved as fast as you can, in real ways that show you care about that audience. Don’t just ask for a show of hands; we did that in school, and it’s not particularly engaging. Instead get our feedback, our testimony, our stories (briefly), our voting preferences, whatever it takes to get real connections going.
5.Which means that you have to make it conversational. Don’t talk at us. Don’t recite facts, more than the absolute minimum necessary. Instead, talk to us like we’re interesting and interested adults. Bring us in to the conversation and show us you care. Make it appear that you’re thinking of all this on the spot. Of course, you’re not, but make it appear that way. Don’t ever make it appear that you’re reciting something you’ve memorized.
I’m still a fond believer in the capacity of audiences everywhere to pay attention, to give attention away, even, lavishly and fully, to speakers who have something worthwhile to say. But I recognize that you’re worried about Societal Attention Deficit Disorder. So use these five ways to grab your audience from the start and never let go.
How to grab a virtual audience fast – covered in my new book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it here.