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.

10 Comments

  1. Hello Dr. Nick Morgan, as always, you bringing us a very important information to those who have the mission to pass knowledge on a certain subject,

    I believe that in this step 2, the application of the knowledge of Mirror Neuron Theory would be very important.

    If the speaker interacts with the face of a cheerful, friendly person, he will reciprocate that image and gradually he will assume more and more confidence.

    The speaker should understand that people are there hoping to receive useful information that will impact their life.
    And when we expect good things we get excited and reflect that.

    It is up to the lecturer to absorb this climate that will make him more imponderado and to pass his message with much self-confidence. A warm hug, from Brasil

    1. Thanks, Elazier — you’re absolutely right; mirror neurons will fire to create a warm connection early in a speech if your body language messages are open and connecting.

  2. Great post, love #2! My question – when is the optimal time/location in a keynote to tell the audience what you are going to cover? I’ve tried both ways – starting with a story and starting with a high WIIFM “what you are going to learn” approach. I’m guessing right after a short cliff hanger story that ends with a solid point that can be used as context for the rest of the presentation?

    1. Yes, Andy — but I would make it (the context-setting) very brief — no more than a sentence or two, and then immediately into the rest of the speech. The story itself should last 1 – 3 minutes.

      1. Hi Nick, what a delightful answer to Andy. Reading it felt,like dancing with words and embracing all who are reading this.Or others sitting in chairs ready for the story at hand about any subject to listen and see too. Liefs from Holland, kitty Ps.,loved reading your article too!!

  3. In my extensive experience as a public speaker I have found that the best way to grab the attention of your audience is to start off with something that seems completely off topic from what they expected that you were going to say.
    The audience will immediately wake up and tune in to what you are saying because it is totally unexpected. They might be asking themselves “what the heck is he talking about?” Or “where the heck is he going with this?” But they will be paying close attention.
    The trick is to have an opener that seems off topic but that actually connects with your topic in a way that makes an important and memorable point.
    It may take some preparation time to develop this but it will be well worth it for you and for your audience.

  4. This is so timely for me! Will be soon having a project kick off with an engineering firm. However, my audience will be maintenance folks that need to be confident about the new equipment we are installing and own it. They are a much different crowd and won’t want a high fallutant pitch. I will bring some produce samples and meet them where they are. They are very important to the success of this project!

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