This is one of the most frequently-asked questions during my workshops and coaching sessions. We all know it’s hard to keep an audience’s attention – after all, it’s hard to keep our attention when we are listening to a speech or presentation. Our minds start to drift off and we think about our day, our To Do list, and the things we forgot to do before leaving the house that morning.

As speakers, we are constantly in competition for our audience’s attention, especially with more and more digital devices to distract us (see an early video I recorded on the subject of why cell phones are dangerous to public speakers).

Here are some tips to capturing and keeping your audience’s attention, followed by what to do before and during the speech.

Engagement Tips 

  • Ask a question and let the audience respond or discuss in groups of 2.
  • Show a short, relevant video clip to introduce a point.
  • Use a startling statistic to grab the audience’s attention and move on to a new point.
  • Poll the audience in a fun way: “how many of you…?” or “stand up if you…”
  • Walk around the room so you can connect more fully with the audience. Get a lavalier mic and use the whole room if possible (but avoid turning your back on the audience).
  • Use physical props to illustrate your point: see George Clooney’s Backpack Speech from the movie Up In The Air.
  • Use visual simulation: paint a picture of a situation you’d like the audience to feel, perhaps saying, “Imagine for a moment…” and see the above Backpack Speech as an example.
  • Tell a story or anecdote which helps make the material you are presenting come alive.  Stories also help you utilize a more natural, conversational speaking style.
  • Bring swag or games or snacks as unexpected treats for your audience.

Here are some things you can do in advance to make your speech more engaging:

Put yourself in the audience members’ shoes: As you write your speech, ask yourself: What time of the day is the speech or presentation? Who else is speaking before me? What will be the audience’s frame of mind or level of energy? If you’re the last speaker before a meal, or at the end of a long day, you must plan some engaging techniques to keep up the energy level.

Engage your audience at regular intervals: When I plan my workshops, I never speak for more than 15 minutes before transitioning to an exercise or activity, because I know my audience can’t listen to me speak for more than 15 minutes at a time. When you’re writing a longer speech, plan engaging tactics at regular intervals. One of the best complements I’ve ever received is, “4 hours didn’t feel like 4 hours.”

Write an attention-grabbing opener: The first sentence of the speech is crucial to keeping the audience’s attention. This is the sentence that gets them to put down their device and listen, thinking “this will be something different.” This is where you start with a question, a personal story, a powerful quote, or a shocking statistic. And remember, your speech starts from the moment you stand up, way before you get to the front of the room.

Write a powerful conclusion: The last sentence is an opportunity to drive home your message and leave your audience with something they will remember. Rather than ending with, “So, yeah,” plan this out and make sure it’s powerful and decisive and try to connect it with your opening sentence.

Be personal, be authentic, be interested: People are coming to hear you and learn from you, not to hear something they could read in a report on the company’s website. The more you can connect with your authentic interest in the material, the better of a speaker you will be. If you are bored, your audience will be bored.

Emergency Advice: In the Moment

Most of us have experienced standing in front of an audience and watching their eyes glaze over or their heads nod down or their faces reflect the light of their digital device. Here are some in the moment tips to get back on track.

  • If you sense the audience is drifting, say, “Let me stop here for a moment and see if you have any questions.” If no one asks a question, say, “Let me ask you a question” and then ask something relevant.
  • Poll the audience with a “stand up if you…” question as suggested above.
  • Have a few funny anecdotes or quotes in your back pocket – use them here to transition.
  • If you think you’ve been rambling, look down at your bullet points, pause, and say, “Let me come back to an important point.”
  • As a last resort, if everyone is on their cell phone and no one is looking at you, you can always stop and say, “Let me pause because it seems everyone is on their phone. Did something happen that I should be aware of?” It’s both funny and makes a point that people aren’t respecting you.

Being an engaging speaker is about more than using a few tips and techniques: it’s about taking the time to prepare a speech you’re authentically interested in and then finding the best way to present that material to your target audience. Focus on your audience, your message, and your drive to speak, and you will keep your audience engaged.