How to Engage Your Audience

One key to delivering an effective presentation is the ability to turn your audience’s attention into engagement. Those are two very different states of mind that must be distinguished from one another. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, attention is the application of the mind to any object or sense of thought, whereas engagement is emotional involvement or commitment. Two very different things, indeed, as attention is what you have by default when beginning a presentation. People are looking at you, ready and waiting for you to begin your spiel; they’re attentive. But to get your audience to act on what you are speaking about, you must engage them. You must get them emotionally involved and committed to your spiel. You must transform their attention to engagement. Here are some tips on how to do that.

The Benefit of the Benefit

A simple way to engage the audience is to talk about them. By nature, people are interested in themselves. They like to hear how they fit in with what you are presenting. As Jerry Weissman writes adamantly throughout his book, every speech must answer the WIIFY question: What’s in it for you? If you spell out the particular benefit for them, they will become much more engaged in your presentation because they are personally involved in it.

It’s also important to spell out your presentation’s value for the audience. Again, here we harken back to Weissman, who argues that it’s imperative to connect the dots in an obvious way between your presentation’s content and the value they are receiving from it. Don’t make them think, he writes. Fill in the blanks for them; don’t make them guess why what you are saying is important.

Likewise, the Heath brothers encourage spelling out the benefit of the benefit for your audience. “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits,” they write. “They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.” Take it to the next level; make it obvious. This level of transparency, this direct correlation between your content and why it’s important to them is a simple way to move your audience from attentive to engaged.

Mind the Gap

Another great way to engage your audience is through what the Heath brothers refer to as the knowledge gap. They write that a great way to spark curiosity in your audience is by identifying (and pointing out to them) what they don’t know. “We need to open gaps before we close them,” they write. “Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First though, they must realize that they need these facts.” What questions do you want your audience to ask? How can you elicit those questions from them? For example, if you were hawking Subway sandwiches, you might open a knowledge gap by asking, “How healthy can you be while eating fast food?” causing your audience to think, well, I’m not sure, probably not very. And then you would launch into stories about competitors’ unhealthy fare, and follow with a story about a man who lost 200 pounds eating Subway everyday. Open a knowledge gap, and then close it in an interesting, unexpected way.

Once Upon a Time…

And of course, the easiest way of all to engage your audience is by telling them a compelling story. Think of the mediums with which we engage our distraction-addled attention spans every day: movies, books, television shows, music and more. Those mediums engage us so completely because they involve stories. We become emotionally invested in and connected to those worlds of fantasy, and as a result we are steadfastly engaged with them. Stories encourage us to ask questions and participate in conversation. They spark our curiosity and compel us to feel empathic and compassionate. Utilize them as much as possible in your presentation.

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