7 ways to connect with your audience during a speech

Know what your audience wants, season your talk with humor, play the contrarian, and offer a tangible takeaway.

If you have ever delivered a speech and failed to connect with your audience members, I have good news. You don’t have to be the world’s most captivating speaker to deliver a dynamic, entertaining speech.

At its core, a speech is just a conversation. Like any conversation, your job is to communicate certain information to the people listening, whether it’s one person or one thousand.

The problem is that we are all subject to such an onslaught of information today that it’s very difficult to break through the noise.

Your job as a speaker is to make a connection with your audience so they will accept and retain your message.

Let me put a finer point on it: If you don’t grab your audience’s attention, you will lose their interest in a heartbeat, and your speech will just be a giant waste of time.

In that spirit, here are seven excellent ways to connect with your audience during a speech:

1. Talk about what your audience wants you to talk about.

This may seem basic, but how do you know you’re even talking about the things your audience wants you to talk about?

Most people who give a speech pick the topic and write the speech completely independently, without any input from the potential audience. Rather than doing that, flip that process around. Find out what your audience wants to hear, then talk about that.

Do some basic audience research by contacting people who will be in the audience and interviewing them about a few of the questions they want answered. It’s much better to find these things out in advance rather than afterward.

2. Refer to audience members by name.

Have you ever noticed how politicians tend to start speeches by mentioning a few of the dignitaries in the audience by name? There’s a reason why they do that.

People love to receive recognition, especially in front of peers or colleagues.

So, the next time you speak, don’t be afraid to name-drop—that is, to drop names of people who are in the audience while you’re speaking.

Better yet, use stories or examples involving people who you know will be in your audience to illustrate your points. At a minimum, you know at least one person will be paying attention.

3. Have a sense of humor.

You ever wonder why so many speeches start with a joke? It sends a signal to the audience that they can relax.

Unfortunately, audiences have been conditioned by bad speakers to expect to be bored. It’s all too easy for audience members’ minds to wander.

Sprinkling jokes throughout a speech guarantees your audience will pay a little more attention—at least they will be listening closely for the next joke to come along. So including a little humor in your speech is actually a great way to get your points across.

4. Do the opposite of everyone else.

I can still remember one of the most powerful speeches I ever heard in person as if it were yesterday.

The year was 2003. I was at the California State Democratic Party’s annual convention, where potential presidential candidates were addressing the crowd. Then-Sens. John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and a host of others delivered slightly different versions of the same speech, giving the audience of party stalwarts what it wanted to hear on various political issues.

Then a little-known governor named Howard Dean came up to the podium.

Dean immediately ripped into the other speakers, using a refrain of, “What I want to know … is why” the other speakers were not talking about issues like health care and the war in Iraq.

The audience erupted, devouring the red meat and Dean’s willingness to take a stand.

So, what’s the lesson for you? If everyone else is giving PowerPoint presentations, don’t do it. If everyone else is entering from stage left, enter from the back of the room. If everyone else is being polite, ruffle a few feathers.

Doing the unexpected will make it more likely your audience will sit up and pay attention.

5. Wrap your points in relevant stories.

The best speakers understand the power of stories. Nearly every audience would much rather hear stories than receive the information any other way. (With the possible exception of interpretive dance—if you can deliver all of your speeches in the form of interpretive dance, that would be awesome.)

It’s not enough to tell funny or amusing stories. You must tell stories that illustrate your points.

A classic example is the brilliant Stanford commencement address Steve Jobs gave in 2005. “Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life,” Jobs said at the outset of the speech. “That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”

Jobs then proceeded to use the three stories as the basis for his larger message, including points about “connecting the dots” in your life and how setbacks can be blessings in disguise.

Jobs was smart enough to know that you’re more likely to connect with your audience if you use stories as the framework for larger messages.

6. Open your heart.

If you really want to make a connection with your audience, get personal.

Tell a revealing story. Share a side of you few ever see. Allow it all to hang out, warts and all.

People will respect your honesty and candor, especially if you show you are not perfect.

Sure, it’s won’t be easy to be truly open and vulnerable. Few things in life are easy, but the payoff will be worth it.

7. Give your audience gifts.

Finally, if you really want to show your appreciation to your audience members, give them a gift.

I’m not saying you have to give everyone in the audience a car, like Oprah.

What you can do is over-deliver by giving your audience a resource, guide, or information piece that they will truly value.

It could be a handout that summarizes your most valuable advice and tips, or a handy chart, or an infographic, or even a book.

Make it so good that you can imagine people placing it front and center on their desks or sleeping with it under their pillow. Yes, it should be that good.

Do that, and your audience will never forget you or your message.

What tips do you have for connecting with audience members during a speech? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared on Dumb Little Man. You can download John’s free, 52-page networking guide How to Increase Your Income in 14 Days by Building Relationships with VIPs, Even if you Hate Networking.

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