3 Things That Command Audience Attention...and 3 That Lose It

I do a lot of public speaking. When you're doing a big conference talk, a workshop, or even a digital presentation, there's an energy present that lets you gauge how you're doing. If you pay attention, you can feel it. Sometimes it's just this ever-present acute awareness of eyes on you. The electric energy of attentiveness.

Other times, you can feel it slipping away. You know the feeling if you've ever given a presentation in a boardroom. It's that feeling when heads are drooping and when the HR manager thinks she's being discreet about checking her phone under the table. You know people's minds are anywhere but on you.

It knocks the wind right out of your sails.

If you want to be successful in leadership, you have to know how to command attention. There is a fine art to this: it demands intentionality in how you speak, carry yourself, and present. If you want to capture attention and hold it in any public speaking scenario, whether you're with your small team in an office or before an audience of thousands, here are a few things you must remember:


3 Things That Always Capture Audience Attention

1) Focus on their needs.

At our heart of hearts, human beings are egocentric creatures. As a public speaker and leader, it's crucial to tap into this need to be the focus of attention. Be sure that you don't make any presentation too much about you and your accomplishments. Instead, focus on your audience: their hopes, dreams, and ambitions. What is your talk going to do for them? Why is what you're saying worth their while?

Remember, whether you like it or not, you're selling your audience on yourself. They decide very quickly whether or not to buy in.

2) Give them meat.

Even if you catch them early on by offering them something that sounds great, you have to actually give them something to chew on. As a leader, you can only have momentum and lasting power if you're offering something that is sustainable. Are you giving your audience real information, or are you blowing smoke?

I feel that this is the failing of many public speakers and workshops these days. They don't offer meat or real content. Even if they make the audience feel good, they're not left with anything to take with them. There's nothing of value. If you want to be a speaker and a leader that has lasting power, not just in one talk, but over a lifetime, ensure that you are imparting real wisdom. Ensure that your words have meat and meaning. Be grounded. Be convicted. Give your audience something real.

3) Get to your point.

In academia, you always have a thesis statement. The same is true in public speaking. There is a balance of storytelling and injecting emotion, but you also need to be clear and straightforward. Your audience should never be left wondering where your point is. Let your point be clear from the get-go: then it can be expanded and fleshed out.

Being clear and concise is so important in a presentation. Your audience must be able to follow you seamlessly from point A to point B. Start with your main point from the very beginning and keep your message to just a few (between three and five) points to support your main idea.

Remember, you don't want to overload or lose your audience. Conclude before they check out.

3 Things That Immediately Disengage an Audience

1) Discrediting yourself.

Public speaking is still the number one fear held by Americans. We collectively hate it, so it's no surprise that the act often heightens our insecurities and fears. As such, we can feel an impulse to preemptively apologize and “cover” ourselves before something goes wrong.

Ignore this impulse. It can take many forms. You may apologize for being tired, unprepared, making a mistake, or for a technological gaff.

Even if something goes wrong in your presentation, don't say sorry. You have to ignore the impulse to apologize or draw attention to your mistakes in the moment. It weakens your stance and forces your audience to notice something that they may or may not have paid attention to. Don't draw attention to your insecurities. Focus on the task at hand and power through.

2) Speaking to the wrong crowd.

Every leader must be aware of their audience. It can be easy to fall into same habits, talks, and approaches. After all, when you find something that works, why change it?

We change it because one size doesn't fit all. You will find yourself called to talk to diverse groups of people. When you're talking to your team and your industry, you speak at a different level than if you're speaking to the general public. Outward facing versus inward facing. You must tailor your message to the audience to ensure that you keep them engaged: not bored, but not lost.

Know your audience. Recognize what they need to hear and on what level you must approach them.

3) Ignore the signals.

Lastly, you lose an audience when you ignore the signals. There are usually tell-tale signs in body language to watch for. When people are nodding off or checking their devices, you know they need to be approached with an element of interactivity (like a call to “raise your hand if…”).

People getting up to go to the bathroom often or fidgeting? Work in an intermission and let people get coffee and stretch.

See a lot of crossed arms? It's defensive, and you should likely soften your speech with some “I know this is tough to hear, but…” or other disarming language to reel them back in to make them receptive again.

There are many subtle signals that your audience is growing disengaged. As the speaker and as a leader, it's on your to watch for these signals and, rather than panicking that your talk isn't going as it should, use the opportunity to course correct.

While mastery of presenting and public speaking takes time, it begins with understanding how to connect to an audience. Capturing their attention isn't as hard as it may seem, but it does take an awareness and understanding of your audience and yourself.

What has been your experience speaking or presenting before an audience? Share your best tips in the comments.