You’re losing the audience—now what?

Panicking and getting louder are not the proper remedies. Instead, try these techniques to gain and retain the eyes and ears of your assembled devotees.

Maybe you’ve been there: Your fascinating presentation just isn’t holding their attention.

At a recent workshop I led on speaker skills and message development, we spent a lot of time talking about the need to start with your audience’s needs and about today’s limited attention spans. So, it was not a surprise when one participant asked, “What do you do if you’re losing your audience’s attention?”

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get out into the crowd: Walking into the audience can help speakers before they lose the audience. It puts you on their level, makes you more accessible and humanizes you. Better yet, it almost instantly forces people to follow you—especially if you walk around. Audiences tune out when they think they know what to expect; if you move out from behind the lectern and come down the aisle, there’s no telling what will happen.
  • Gesture: Judiciously used, a gesture that underscores a point can have the same effect in a smaller way. Look for the points of emphasis in your speech, and determine whether a well-timed gesture can bring the audience back.
  • Get the audience involved: Instead of lecturing at them, take an instant poll—don’t tell them your point, ask them what they think and take the measure of the room. More and more, audiences want to participate, not listen passively. Engage them by asking questions and commenting on the results, or by asking what their experience has been. You’ll learn something about them, and you’ll get their attention.

Those all are better than overemphasizing your point, increasing your volume or showing your panic-unfortunate responses I’ve seen from speakers who fear their audience is slipping away.

The best technique? Plan a speech designed to do all these things from the start, and you can head off the problem.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, DC-based speaker coach who has coached more than 100 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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