Every person connected with the theater knows that an audience must become engaged with the action on stage as soon as possible, in order for that stage effort to be successful. The same is true for your business presentations. You can start by applying three simple strategies at the beginning of each talk.
1. Maintain good eye contact.
Eye contact means “eyeball to eyeball”: not looking at foreheads, to the tops of heads, or looking in the general direction of individuals. Make eye contact with people within audience sections: for example, focus on individuals on the left side of the audience, then the right, then the center – or in any order you choose. Be sure to cover the whole audience territory and remember to include people seated in the back rows. Depending upon the size of your audience/venue, it may be challenging to make eye contact with people who are furthest away from you, but seek out as many eyes as possible. Contrary to common fears, maintaining good eye contact actually helps relax you as a speaker. Seeing people’s eyes will remind you that the audience is, after all, made up of regular folks just like you, and that they do want you to succeed. They are usually hopeful and expectant; they want to believe that they have made a good choice by attending your presentation!
2. Use a conversational tone, vary your pace, and be sure that conviction and passion are visible on your body and audible in your voice.
Most listeners respond favorably when a speaker communicates gratitude and humility, and a conversational tone helps project these qualities in you. It lets your audience know that you are approaching them as an expert who is an equal, not as a professor or pontificator. Speak as you would during a one-on-one conversation, with the slight adjustment of a heightened energy. Take the attitude that you are pleased to be sharing an important secret with your audience; that you are speaking confidentially to each individual listener. Vary your pace, to generate interest and convey enthusiasm. Take time to allow you thoughts to “land”, and occasionally pause for dramatic effect. Audiotape your rehearsals; when you play back the tape, take special note of the moments when you sounded most authentic, most conversational; moments when your voice and YOU were “one”; when your voice is the true YOU. Analyze what you were doing that caused that authentic sound, and strive to replicate that underlying behavior (rather than the sound). Your sound in any given moment is the result of your intention and communication behavior. You can achieve an authentic and effective sound by doing something; pursuing an appropriate objective. The degree of conviction and passion in your voice and gestures is within your control. Gestures and body language should match the intensity of your voice, as well as your content.
3. Ask questions and ask for volunteers.
Involve your audience by asking questions and inviting individuals to come to the platform area to participate in simple tasks/exercises related to your topic. When you pose questions to your audience, people invariably answer them, which immediately makes the responders a part of the presentation. Audiences enjoy this. Ask questions that you know they can answer, and be sure that everything you ask is directly related to the purpose/main idea of your talk. For pure engagement and entertainment value, nothing beats demonstrations by your audience members. Create simple tasks/exercises for individuals or pairs that will illustrate your points. Ask for volunteers from the audience to come to the platform area; if people seem shy at first and no one immediately volunteers, wait. WAIT. Have the courage to tolerate silence or hesitation from the audience, and during the silence, make strong eye contact with a broad smile and open arms. Avoid all temptation to recruit individuals; allow them to volunteer. (During the hundreds of presentation I have made in all industries, I have never faced a situation where we lacked volunteers.) Audiences include those who enjoy receiving attention and will rise to the occasion! Audience members who remain seated become immediately captivated: this is theater, the drama of watching a situation unfold in the here and now, where anything can happen. It is compelling and irresistible because of its immediacy.
When you involve your audience early in your talk in these three ways, you set the stage for the audience to bond with you. The sooner they bond with you, the stronger their connection with you will be. This is true engagement.