No matter how informative your material is, you can’t provide benefit to the audience if their attention is elsewhere. However, there are a few techniques that I use to catch and hold audience attention.
Keeping an attentive audience:
First, if members of the audience are chatting with each other while I am speaking, I know I have to do something so that they stop chatting and also the others don’t even think about chatting either. If the chatters are in the front rows, I look at them intently until I get their attention. With a smaller audience, I’ll walk over to them, getting down from the stage if I am on one, and stand next to chatter with a somber face and without saying a word. After a few seconds everyone realizes something has changed and starts staring at the “culprits.” People can’t stand silence–and the chatter soon realizes that something is wrong. When he or she looks at me–I just smile back. This shows the entire audience the lesson that no one should be chatting! If someone were to doze, I would do the same–stand beside them until the silence woke them up.
Of course, with a very large audience, it is not possible to look into everyone’s eyes or stand beside them. In that case, I earmark a few attendees that I look at from time to time. They are my sample – my unbiased sample, because I have selected them at random. (You can see that I am trained as a statistician in my graduate and post graduate studies at a few universities.) I judge how everything is going by their reactions. I have spoken about how to keep eye contact in Part 01 – Rules of Thumb to become an outstanding public speaker.
Fortunately, so far, no one has dozed off in my audiences, but I have to be vigilant about all potential frailties! After lunch, all the people of the world happen to be ready for a siesta. That is why, if my presentation spans an entire day, I make sure that the workshop portion, when they will be engaging with each other, is assigned to that session right after lunch. During that time, I walk around and help the teams if they have questions. I’ll come back to speak following the afternoon tea/ coffee break, when they are fresh again.
Roller coaster ride of the presented topics:
Another technique that I use in my presentations, is to plan the flow of the talk. The early morning of my talk I sit down and scribble the sequence of the topics I am going to cover. Maybe it is old fashioned but I find when I write something with my hand on a piece of paper the nerves of the tips of my fingers carry that message to my brain and it somehow etches on it – I, of course, don’t know which part of the brain. But that helps me immensely. I don’t need to look at that piece of paper during my presentation. The material just flows. I can see my presentation in the air in front of me. I find that the human brain is amazing – only if we would let it do its job.
I like to take my audience on a roller coaster ride.
Roller Coaster Ride for Complex Concepts to keep audience attention
When I am presenting complex concepts, I let the key points build up, one after the other. During that process the audience is tense–riding up the roller coaster as they concentrate. Once I have reached the peak of a concept and I know the audience understands it, I’ll make some entertaining remarks that support the topic at hand, which lets them relax (make sure you don’t say something as a joke which is unrelated. The attendees get annoyed by that. That said you have to rehearse it ahead of time what you are going to say when.) They are not necessarily screaming going down the roller coasters’ slope–but by laughing or enjoying the remark, or nodding their heads in agreement, they can release their pent-up anxiety. Then I take them up again to the next height with another concept, and so on. Throughout my performance I tell many stories, from many different sides of life, from various countries I have been to, various people and companies I have worked with, which fit the topics at hand. This helps people remember the stories and thus learn the concepts they associate with them. Inferences and associations are the best tools for remembering many things that otherwise could be too abstract to retain.
I combine many disciplines, especially the study of human nature, into my sessions–in order to go beyond “IT mumbo jumbo.” But doing so requires a deep knowledge of the topic at hand. You owe it to the audience that they spend their time learning something from you. You can’t just make jokes if you don’t know what you are talking about. When you are preparing your presentation, it is good to have some friends or colleagues become “devil’s advocates” and ask you tough questions you haven’t thought about. At that moment you will hate them, but they serve their purpose. This way you are sure ahead of your presentation that questions from the audience won’t torpedo you. A little practice like this goes a long way, and helps me to feel more prepared and confident on the stage.
Successful public speaking is an art as well as science. And please remember in order to connect with an audience, a speaker has to motivate them, inspire them, entertain them, and then instruct them. And it should be done in this order.