How to Engage Your Audience and Keep Their Attention

Written by:
Sandy Rushton

presentation tips how to engage an audience

When it comes to engaging an audience, there are a lot of myths out there. Many presenters have been told that the key to keeping an audience’s attention is charisma. Charm and confidence are great assets to presenters, but you don’t need to be a Steve Jobs to get your audience’s attention.

The real key to engaging your audience is something you do before you step out to present. It’s something you do before you start rehearsing. It’s something you do before you even create your slides. Knowing how to structure your presentation is where engaging your audience really begins.


Build a Winning Structure


Working for a niche presentation agency, I’ve learned the value of starting every presentation with a firm foundation. Before going into slide creation, it’s important to take a step back and think about the content of the presentation. At BrightCarbon, we call this "messaging," and it’s the first step we take when creating a presentation from scratch.

Empathy is extraordinarily valuable when it comes to structuring your message. Resist the temptation to use your presentation as a platform to show off all your new products' cool new features, or all the great feedback you’ve had from past clients. Though it is important to illustrate your strengths, it is more important to cater to your audience’s needs.

Do your research. Find out what challenges your audience is trying to overcome, or what they are interested in. You can then structure your arguments around these needs, directly addressing your audience’s concerns, interests, and requirements.

At this point comes the temptation to chuck in a whole bunch of great statistics, glowing feedback, lists of fancy features, and additional capabilities. Resist! Throwing in a bunch of weak arguments will reduce the overall strength of your message. If you present a few solid arguments, the impact of your presentation will be much higher.

Stick to about three main arguments and back them up with strong evidence, leaving out anything that isn’t really crucial. Keeping your presentation brief and full of impact is a sure way to ensure your audience won’t tune you out.


Start Negative, End Positive


It may go against all our instincts, but there is no better way to get people to sit up and pay attention than speaking about their problems. You could be discussing an issue they are already aware of, in which case you are again using empathy to address their needs. You could also be showing them a problem they haven’t even thought of yet. This puts you in a great position to let your expertise shine and provide your audience with information of real value.

After this negative start, you need to guide the audience through your approach to the problem. Address the issues that you’ve brought up by outlining those strong arguments for your solution. End the presentation by looking towards a future where – with your help – the problem has been overcome and they are much better off. By taking them on this journey from negative to positive, they will clearly understand how they can benefit from working with you.

Empathizing (yep, that old chestnut) with your audience’s problems and difficulties isn’t exclusively a sales tool. You can use this in any type of presentation to capture your audience’s imagination and illustrate the importance of listening carefully to what you have to say.


Use Audience-First Language


After you’ve structured your presentation, you might want to write a script or some speaker notes. When creating your speaking notes, always keep your audience at the front of your mind.

Take them along for the ride by using language that centers around them: lots more "you," "your needs," "your success" and a bit less "us," "our clients," "our product." By framing your whole narrative around the audience’s wants and needs, you immediately connect with them and keep them engaged. And since you’ve been prioritizing the audience from stage one, this should be pretty easy to achieve.


Master Your Notes


Robotically reading from notes is a great way to get your audience to nod off. Instead, commit your key points to memory and practice your delivery while clicking through your slides. A well-rehearsed presentation always sounds more natural. Your audience will feel that they are being talked to, not talked at.

It is also important to know your content well enough to adjust in case of emergency. A fire alarm cuts your hour long presentation down to 30 minutes? Well, if you know your story and your content, you’ll be able to pick out the most important information and still wow your audience.


On The Day


Your worst enemy when giving a presentation is your own doubt. So don’t stand up to present thinking your audience won’t be interested. They are there for a reason and so are you.

If it’s a sales pitch, then a lot of effort has gone in to get you to this point. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have a chance of winning.

If you’re speaking at a conference or seminar, your audience has chosen to attend because they are interested in your perspective. It’s important to remember that if they show up, half the battle is already won!

Before you start your presentation, you often have some time to mingle with your audience. Don’t be scared to ask them questions. Especially in a sales environment, talking to your audience before you start can reveal particular needs or interests they might have. You can then spend more time talking about things you know they really care about, and skim over content which isn’t as relevant as you thought.

But if you are nervous about the presentation itself and want more tips for delivery, check out my colleague Lizzie’s great post on presenting visual slides.

Putting the audience first, from way before the presentation even begins, pays off. Create your structure, do your research, and practice your presentation thoroughly. If you follow the steps of this process, your audience will be delighted, and definitely not dozing off.


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    About the Author

    Sandy is a communication consultant for BrightCarbon, a niche presentation agency with a focus on visual storytelling. Since graduating from the University of Cambridge in 2015 with a BA in Linguistics, she spends her days turning boring slides on their heads by translating words into stunning visuals.

    4 responses to “How to Engage Your Audience and Keep Their Attention”

    1. Hassan BOUSSONA says:

      It is an Intresting article. But, making an effective communication requires also :
      *Choosing a variety of support not well known to your listeners to increase your credibility ( Examples, Statistics, Testimony …)
      *communicating excitement about their topics
      *Using your posture, your tone of voice, and facial expressions correctly because they indicate exactly your attitude.
      *Knowing your audience
      At last not least , I thank you for sharing.

    2. sue says:

      Great article and timely as I am at this very moment creating a fukll day work shop – made me step back and think about my audiences challenges! Thanks Sandy

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