Reader’s Question: How Do I Engage My Audience?

I’ve been asking my newsletter subscribers for communication and public speaking questions. The questions that are stumping them and keeping them up at night. I tackled this reader’s question first about audience engagement because it’s the one that I’m asked most often:

As a presenter, how do you handle the fact when the audience doesn’t feel engaged? (e.g. they don’t ask questions, etc.)

Standing in front of your audience and getting the feeling your audience is not engaged haunts many speakers. It can be a speaker’s nightmare.

But there are lots of ways to not get caught in the trap.

Sometimes What You See ISN’T What You Get

Let me start with a caveat that you’ll probably think doesn’t answer your question but actually does.

I’ve had it happen to me – perceived lack of engagement – it was an eye-opening exercise because when I took the time to weigh what actually happened, I learned I was believing stories that simply weren’t true.

Here’s how my misunderstanding unfolded.

I delivered a presentation to a small room of about a hundred and based on the lack of emotion and interaction (no nodding heads, smiling, or audible ahhhhs) I felt like I had bombed.

I was chastising myself for misreading what my audience wanted to hear from me and my poor planning.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The fellow in the front row that I thought was either glaring at me or completely disinterested came up to me later and told me it was one of the best presentations he had attended.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

I had a number of people congratulate me post-event and also received kudos by email.

What I learned was that many of the attendees were intent with what I was sharing – caught up in their own heads and didn’t have capacity for interacting with me. I’ve had clients report back post-presentation with similar feedback.

I realized too, that for all of our study of body language that we need to be cautious. The longer I’ve been in the practice of communication I know this to be true. We come with our own biases some of which are cultural.

Crossed arms or a stoic face for one might mean they’re not happy. For someone else, they might simply be thinking.

Long story short, don’t make assumptions.

But What If They Are Truly Disengaged?

What if your audience is really not interested?

You will see the obvious evidence such as people chatting in the back of the room, a few people working away on their phones, and the horror of horrors -> some searching for the exit.

A colleague of mine used this radical approach that I sometimes use when facilitating workshops. He put the brakes on what he was delivering (when he realized he wasn’t meeting the group’s expectations) and asked the group why they weren’t engaged – what was it they expected to learn and come away with that day.

Talk about guts. But it worked for him and it has worked for me.

This tactic takes chutzpah and confidence.

What you may get spooked by is you have it cemented in your mind that you can’t  pivot and change directions.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You have been invited to speak because you are subject matter expert and have an in-depth grasp of your field of study, which means you have a solid foundation to pivot from.

Tackling disengagement takes a leap of faith and is worth the gamble rather than having a group leaving underwhelmed.

But Janice, What You Suggested Is Not Going To Work For Me!

What if pivoting is not an option for you? For example, you’re delivering at an event that’s in a big room with a large audience and you’ve been profiled to deliver specific information.

Make Your Audience Welcome The Old School Way

I often get comments about how effective this next technique is because it’s not common practice. Perhaps it’s thought of as old school or too time-consuming. Whenever I can, I  introduce myself and greet people as they arrive. Guests are usually surprised and boy does it ever make a difference.

You’re probably thinking no one else does that. You’re right, not many people do. It takes confidence. You might also be thinking, it’s not professional. I disagree. Making your audience feel comfortable is the highest example of customer service – showing that you care about them showing up.

Another Tip To Block Barriers And Help Engage Your Audience

How else do you break down barriers so your audience is engaged? Don’t stand behind the podium. Do everything in your power to not be there. This might take some convincing with your event organizer.

Any time you get a chance to be close to your audience grab it. It makes a big difference to the temperature in the room – whether people feel comfortable to engage with you.

As I’ve been writing this I realize the techniques to engage are many (and complex).

Let’s jump right into the mechanics of audience engagement.

The powers that be at TED say that for a presentation to be engaging it needs three things: a fresh idea, a solution to a problem, and it needs to be delivered with passion.

But that’s very big picture, isn’t it? It doesn’t really answer how to construct a presentation let alone how to be engaging.

Let me give you more insight.

Every presentation needs to follow a basic outline:

Know Your Intention – Why are you giving this presentation? If you don’t know or haven’t established this you run the risk of having your presentation running off on tangents and your audience being underwhelmed.

Eyebrow Raising Open – Your open must catch your audience’s curiosity – have them wanting to hear more.

One (only one – don’t fudge!) key message, sometimes called a through-line. Many presenters fail here because they have two, three, or even four key messages, which leaves their audience totally confused about what they are supposed to do or take away.

Three Proof Points – This is how you’ll influence your audience with concepts (ideas or arguments) that will prove your key message – yes maximum three! You want to make it easy for your audience to follow along and digest what you’re sharing with them. More than three and you’ll lose them.

Proof Subsets – For each of your three proof points how many you have will depend on how long you’re speaking for. This makes this template really adaptable and will help you create a signature talk that is flexible for different events.

Smooth transitions from point to point. If you don’t have flow you’re going to lose your audience and they’ll struggle to keep up with you.

And finally, a close that your audience won’t forget anytime soon. Did you know that the most remembered part of a presentation is the close? Don’t lose this key opportunity.

To make it easier for you here’s a gift from me – a template to work from. It will help keep you on track and set a solid foundation for your next presentation. 

The outline matrix will hone in on the landmarks to create flow and connect at a deeper level with your audience. It’s a good spring board for audience engagement.

Stay with me here because there are three jewels of audience engagement that are buried even deeper. These are the nuggets that are the difference between really connecting or not.

Problem solution & story arc. Your presentation needs to have hot and cold temperatures and energy running through it to keep your audience interested. Your audience won’t notice it, it subversively carries them along.

A story arc approach is the same as a movie that takes you along on a ride of a hero’s journey. Think about all your favourite movies like Lord of the Rings. That’s a hero’s journey.

Another internal presentation structure is to speak to a problem and then provide the solution. You would do this a number of times during a presentation (you could event intertwine a hero’s journey).  Check out Nancy Duarte’s TEDx Talk where she shares the secret structure of great talks.

Nancy talks about the backbone of what makes presentations compelling. She coins it differently than I do – at its base she is talking about the problem and providing the solution. You’ll recognize this technique from orators such as Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Make it personal and connect your experiences to your audience’s. For many of you, this can be tough. I encourage you to give it a try. Showing who we are and the soft belly of our vulnerability can be uncomfortable. I’ve delivered my best presentations when I’ve shared my missteps and screw-ups.

When you admit what you’ve learned by messing up that’s where the magic lies and how you’ll build positive energy in the room. You also need to connect the dots and enlighten your audience to how they can see themselves in the same experience too.

When I’ve approached presentations this way, I get people rushing to the front of the room and lots of emails post-event not to mention feedback scores that are heartening and positive.

The ‘right’ stories and analogies. This takes time and strategic thinking folks. Remember those proof points I talked about in the outline? For your proof points to be convincing you need to bring it home with a story or analogy. When you simply state facts and make statements you’ll quickly lose your audience’s interest. They won’t be engaged!

The above three techniques are the core of audience engagement and connection and will almost always guarantee that your audience will be engaged (with a caveat – that you know who your audience is and how they need to hear your message).

I went back and forth about sharing this video that is an excellent example of how to engage because it might seem self-serving. I decided to because it is a new TED talk that’s just been released and you’ve likely not seen it yet. Better still it is an EXCELLENT example of how to engage an audience using all of the principles I’ve told you about. And even better still I so believe in the work I do to help clients stand on stage confidently and truly engage their audience.

TED2017: Want to get great at something? Get a coach

If you have time over the holidays to watch it please let me know what you thought and if you spotted the techniques that I’ve shared with you today.

In my next blogpost, I’ll unpack Atul Gawande’s TED Talk to put a magnifying glass on the techniques I’ve been unraveling for you to help you see the connection between the presentation outline matrix, the three jewels of audience engagement, and how they are used in practice.

To your voice, because it does make a difference.



I help build confident voices so they’re heard.

Janice Tomich is the founder of Calculated Presentations, a company dedicated to bringing out speaker’s stories to influence change. Janice coaches professionals, entrepreneurs, TED and TEDx speakers. She is a champion for equal representation by a diverse pool of presenters for all speaking events. Follow Janice on Twitter @janicetomich, on Facebook, on LinkedIn and subscribe for newsletter updates.

Be bold. Get heard. Inspire action.