Public Speaking Tips for Engagement
Teaching Public Speaking to school students, I would occasionally drop a communication bombshell onto them.
‘Here is a life truth’, I would say. ‘Are you ready for this?’
They would nod expectantly.
‘Most people really don’t care about you!’
Imagine saying that to a room full of fifteen year olds.
(‘...but all my snapchat friends!!!…’)
So the first and simplest rule of engagement is to talk about something that interests your audience.
Dale Carnegie in his book ‘How to win friends and influence people’ tells a story of being introduced to a lady at a party, who says to him:
‘I hear you have been to Africa, you must tell me about it!’
He gets one sentence out and then the lady starts talking about her own experiences in Africa.
For the rest of the conversation he barely gets a word in.
At the end of the evening the lady remarks to the host that Mr Carnegie was a really interesting conversationalist. He had hardly said a word. She was more interested in herself.
That story is not told judgementally. It simply points out a human tendency and when we present to an audience it is always best to work with human nature.
‘If you talk to me about me, I will listen to you all day!’
Practical tips on engagement
Know your audience’s motivation
Brian Tracy had the sales mantra:
‘To sell Joe Jones what Joe Jones buys, you need to see the world through Joe Jones’ eyes.’
Before we plan a presentation we need to have an idea of who we are talking to and what they want and therefore what might interest them. And this is exactly the same for a business or a team presentation.
Are the team really motivated by business targets or company goals, or are they more motivated by what they could achieve for themselves and their families? My eldest son revealed himself as a very sophisticated communicator at a very young age. We were sitting on a beach when he asks me:
‘Dad, would you like an ice-cream?’
‘I think I would actually.’
‘Good!’ he says. ‘Could you get me….?’
He understood that the best way for him to get an ice cream was to get me to want one first.
Sometimes you will realise that your audience might be motivated by what they can achieve and other times you realise they might be more motivated by what they could avoid.
Know your audience’s interests
If you have a room full of sports fans and you talk to them about politics, they might not engage.
If I was in a room with 25 schoolboys, there was a good chance that many of them were keen on football.
One thing that I did know was that none of them were keen on Public Speaking!
Consequently when I was looking for analogies or examples to explain aspects of Public Speaking, the first place I looked was for sporting parallels.
If we were talking about our current subject, ‘engaging an audience’, I would often refer to one of the Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff’s explanations of ‘total football’
He would say that passing a ball from one player to another is only a good pass if it suits the style and ability of the player receiving the ball. If your strike is fast and agile, then passing the ball into space in front of him for him to run on to is a very good pass. If your striker is large and slow, then the same pass would not be very productive; in which case, passing directly to him so that he can use his strength and close control might be the better option. Similarly when speaking to an audience it is always worth taking the time to work out what subjects interest them, so that you can find the best way to pass your message over to them.
One of the best ways to lose audience engagement is to ramble, or go off the point.
It is not very often at the end of a business meeting that the audience walks out of the room saying:
‘That was really good. I wish it had been a bit longer.’ Your first job in presenting is to get your message across to your audience. If you can do that with less words and take less time in the process, not only will everyone ‘love’ you, but you are also sending a message of competence and efficiency. If you view optimum audience engagement as connected to a clock counting down to zero, the longer you take, the more likely the timer will reach zero before you have finished and your audience has switched off.
Involve the audience
This might be as simple as asking a question that requires an answer.
‘How many of you here..?’
or the slightly more forceful:
‘Please raise your hand if…’
Questions come in many forms. You could style a question to get a physical or vocal response, or you could ask a question that does not require a specific answer, but is intended to get the audience thinking.
You could ask them:
- to write something down;
- to turn to their neighbour to ask, check or confirm something
- to indicate or respond in a certain way
You could even ask for a volunteer to share or demonstrate something.
A ‘serendipity’ is something of extra value that one gains outside or beyond the expected benefits.
So if you are giving a talk on team building, and you can offer a few principles that could also be applied equally well to keeping the relationship at home on track, or to bringing up children, or running a school fair or even organising the church raffle, you will automatically increase the audience’s engagement, because they are getting extra value.
In fact in some cases an audience member might not be engaged at all with the main purpose or your presentation, but was remained fully involved, because they could see how your message applied to another context.
Storytelling remains the most effective way of sharing a message. It is the most natural form of communication. It is something we do in some form every day from complaining about our journey to work to sharing our opinions on last night’s TV. So as well as it being a natural way of engaging another person, it also has the benefit of providing visual examples, easier to remember than facts and data and most of the best stories, from childhood through to adulthood, have a message built into them.
Isn’t it strange how socially, when we are listening to someone telling us something that maybe does not completely interest us, if we like that person we are much more likely to make the extra effort to pay attention to what they want to say. For a speaker who might not be directly known to their audience it might mean showing the audience that you are humble, tolerant, patient and understanding.
If I like you I am more likely to listen to you.
The best position to speak from is from a position of experience.
Why am I listening to you? It is certainly good if I like you. That will help gain my engagement, but to hold my attention, I need to feel that you are worth listening to and that comes from your credibility.
Any speaker that can say:
‘I have been there.’
‘I know how you feel.’
‘I have practical knowledge and experience.’
is always going to be more engaging than someone who might have read about the subject.
Always a dangerous one!
Often one person’s humour is another person’s offence.
So do be careful.
The safest humour will always be humour directly back at you (which will also help with #7 ‘Be likeable’). Probably more important than labouring to be funny is just to show that you have a sense of humour, that you can laugh at yourself and you can see the lighter side of life.
The reason you want to engage your audience is so that you can share a message with them, so make sure that if you are being humorous it is not being funny for its own sake, rather the humour is there to support or underline your key message.
Keeping an audience engaged will always be easier than trying to win them back.
Most audiences are lost in the first few moments, so craft an opening line that is calculated to hook your audience in, hold their attention and act as a firm foundation to engage them for the rest of the talk.