When I have the opportunity to speak to a group, my challenge is to find the most bored and tuned out person sitting in the audience and get him or her more fully engaged with whatever subject matter I’m presenting. Given that I’m usually trying to influence audience members to move toward greater stewardship of natural and cultural resources or understand science
and research and value a thoughtful approach to decision making in the world, I believe it’s important that they pay attention and leave thinking about what they’ve heard.
Research tells us that getting people to think is the key to influencing their behavior in positive ways. If you want them to think, you have to get their attention, hold it and start a conversation. Here are five ways to do that:
- Get Organized – If you cannot hold their attention, it will not matter that you have a powerful message. Advance organizers, like a title with a hook, get people to show up with a good attitude and the expectation that they will hear something of interest. Introducing the theme of your talk in the introduction, developing it in the body and restating it in the conclusion is a powerful approach to getting and holding attention if your theme is strong.
- Relate to Audience Interests – You must relate to each person in your audience in a way that matters to them. Weaving both the tangible elements of your talk (things that can be seen, touched, smelled, heard or experienced with the senses) with the intangibles (concepts, ideas) will ground people with things familiar to them and lead them to the less familiar ideas you wish to introduce. Universal intangibles such as family, life, death, love and fear are more powerful in engaging people than jargon that will be understood only by a few in the audience. For example I could say, “Every cell in my body has the exact blueprints for another ‘me’ stored and everyone in my family has a similar set of blueprints
to mine resulting in our family resemblances, like big ears.” Or I could say, “The 46 chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell in my body contains a pattern of nucleotides that permit the exact replication of my physical/physiological structure and each member of my family have a similar chromosomal pattern to mine with minor variations related to their specific genotype and phenotype.” Unless I’m talking with other scientists, the first version is more likely to be something the audience will be interested in and understand.
- Be interesting – People are more likely to stay engaged if they are having an emotional reaction as well as intellectual stimulation. It doesn’t mean the subject and theme must be light and comedic. “How can each of us help prevent our children from being bullied?” That sounds like a heavy subject and hook, but any parent might have an emotional reaction to that discussion because it will answer some concerns they have about their children in school. Museums of Social Conscience like The Holocaust Museum take on challenging subjects and engage their audience, knowing that many people will come to a greater understanding of human tragedies and challenges through the emotional experience. Being entertainingworks with some audiences, but being interesting by stimulating both emotional and intellectual connections will keep your audience engaged.
- Ask Questions – When you ask your audience a question and allow them to answer, you start a conversation that is more personal than simply delivering information. By starting with an open question, you assure the listeners that you want to hear them and no answer is wrong. When you follow with a focusing question, you point them toward your message and invite them to think about your idea. Then you might ask an interpretive or processing question, which invites them to use their knowledge to come to some new conclusion. Last is the application or capstone question that leaves them with something to think about. “How might our climate be different, if we began using solar energy instead of fossil fuels to power the planet?” Socrates taught his students through questioning two millennia ago and it still works in getting audience engagement. Asking questions is one of the best ways to get people to think and pay attention.
- Encourage Participation – It can be as simple as asking an audience questions and having them give feedback by holding up hands or standing up. “How many of you can find Orion in the night sky easily?” That works even with a very large audience. Or you might try an activity with smaller groups to get everyone on their feet doing something. Bringing just a few audience members on stage to demonstrate something adds interest as their friends and colleagues will enjoy seeing them take part.
These are just a few ideas for engaging an audience to get them to think more deeply about your subject matter and message. You might enjoy hearing yourself talk, but your audience will stay with you longer if you keep their interests in the forefront. And I may not engage that fella on the back row who fell asleep, but I’ll keep trying.