The SECRET to keeping your audience engaged

Question: You’ve just accepted an invitation or assignment to give a presentation. What is the very next thing you should do?

  1.     develop your outline
  2.     create your slides
  3.     discover everything you can about your audience and its needs

Answer: If you picked a or b, you really need this blog post.

Job #1 for every presenter to show respect for the audience by speaking directly to its interests and needs. If a presentation does not in some way reward the audience for their attention, it is almost certainly a waste of time.

Whether you’re planning to give a 10-minute talk or a 45-minute keynote address, ask yourself: What value can I bring the audience? How can I make their time spent with me worthwhile? In most cases, the only way to know the answer is to …

Ask Your Audience

If presenting to your peers or to a segment of your company that you know well, your familiarity gives you an advantage. Even so, let some of them know in advance the purpose of your presentation. Ask if there’s any content they’d like to see included. They could wind up giving you suggestions you hadn’t considered, enabling you to hit all the right notes.

For audiences you don’t know as well, research is essential. Start with their website. Begin with their Mission and Values statements: determine how do their values align with yours, and then subtly or directly, create a link between the two.

Click on the company’s media pages to view their recent news and press releases. Have they recently made any announcements that you could include in your remarks? What initiatives are they working toward that you should know about, or about which you could comment? When you show yourself to be informed about your audience, you earn their respect. And when they respect you, they’re more willing to buy into your message.

Set up Interviews

Just as we recommended for audiences of peers, ask to set up “discovery” calls with a cross section of your audience. Prepare questions for them that will help you understand their needs and target your presentation accordingly. Give them an overview of your topic/ message (e.g. “I’ll be talking about ways that companies can step up their environmental sustainability practices”) and ask for their thoughts on it.

If you goal is to persuade the audience, try to talk with some of the most influential members of the group. At the very least, find out who the decision makers are.

Take the edge off

Another advantage of talking with audience members in advance: it takes the edge off. You won’t be speaking to a room full of total strangers. You’ll feel more like part of the team, and maybe even have an ally or two. (Allies help build your credibility.) Case in point: To prepare for a commencement address a colleague of ours was asked to give at an arts college, he conducted 5-10-minute interviews with a dozen members of the graduating class, discovering their plans and dreams. He then wove into his script short but sparkling highlights of what he heard from those students.

When he delivered his remarks on graduation day, he could sense the audience’s surprise and delight that he was acknowledging, in very personal ways, their own. Their appreciation was palpable, and it quickly put him at ease—a good thing when speaking to 1,000 people!

Be informed about diversity

When developing your presentation, consider whether it would be helpful to know the male-female ratio of your audience, or the range of their ethnicities and ages. No matter how it shakes out, always be inclusive in your presentation visuals, and in your use of personal pronouns.  

Conclusion:  In short, when you’re going to speak to a group of people who are unknown to you, do some homework.  Get to know your audience. When you do, they’ll know it, and always good to have the audience on your side.