Tips on Keeping Your Audience Interested in Your Presentation

This might seem like a strange question to ask, but trust me, it’ll make sense in a bit. When did you last see a seat or bench that you hadn’t seen before, and yet know exactly how to use it? It could have been in a restaurant, or a bar, perhaps in someone’s office, or even in the park. Yet when you saw it, you knew exactly how to use it, right? Question is, how did you know? Still a serious question… The answer is a mix of things… You had seen ones like it before, your brain compared to previous experiences, you looked at how other people were using them and so on. So, with all of that happening in a thrice of a second, you didn’t even notice what was going on in your brain, and went ahead and sat down. Brilliant, itsnt it, how our brains can spot these patterns and act on them?

Now let’s compare that with something a little silly… What if you knew that ONE of the spaces to sit down was going to collapse, because it was being filmed, and the “hilarious” result would be broadcast on TV and the Internet. Wouldn’t that lead to some different behaviour on your part? Of course. A totally different pattern would likely see your brain playing a very full part in choosing where to sit. You would give it proper thought and attention.

Our brains get into patterns which is very useful a lot of the time. It saves time and thought by just letting us get on with things. But this same process happens all over the place, including in work situations. Which is why anything predictable… Like a work presentation, is liable to be experienced in the same auto pilot way as the seating example I just ran through. The answer then, to keeping our audience interested, is to find ways to interrupt these standard patterns.

This is about finding ways to be different when presenting. Not different for the sake of it, but different in order to prevent our audience fighting a losing battle with their own levels of attention. It is not about intentionally being wacky, crazy, humorous, funny or so on. We don’t desire to be provocative, or to cause offence, or upset, though any of these things may happen as a result of us seeking to be different. The reality is that a presentation with great content and a very standard style of delivery will get the same level of attention as a presentation with average content and an amazing interest generating style of delivery.

Look at most conferences and situations where there are a number of speakers and you will see one person after another doing the same things with pretty much the same lines over and over. Standard conference etiquette for example means that speakers use a podium or lectern, therefore speaking from the same spot, and a clearly defined structure makes it harder for any speaker to be noticed.

What we are looking at then is to identify patterns which often hold sway in presentations, and do something different. Remember, we don’t want to be different for the sake of it, we are looking to interrupt patterns to engage our audience and to demand their attention. This is a simple process to do, identify those habits many speakers have, just take note of what many speakers do, and look to do something differently. Here are a few points to start you off.

PowerPoint is one of the most common patterns that many speakers find themselves falling into, so the biggest interruption is to avoid using slides. When I say that to people they always go into a panic about how they can speak without slides, but if you can speak without slides, among a sea of other people using PowerPoint, you can certainly interrupt a strongly defined pattern.

Assuming you need to use slides for some reason, then consider your layout and design. Many conferences and organisations insist on a “house style” but this very style is putting you into a pattern.

A lectern forces you to remain in one spot… So when arranging your speech, ask for lapel microphones. This simple difference means that your audience can see you, and you can be yourself. Consider how other people are using space as they present, and if they are moving a lot, then consider standing still. Whatever patterns you see from other speakers, do something different.

Most speakers and conferences have a convention where they “open the floor to questions” at the end, so why not invite questions throughout? Think also about style within speaking, so look to take a contrary approach, which means use humour where others don’t, or challenge when others are more compliant and so on.

Finally do an audit of your personal presentation habits, and work hard to change them. Many habits are shared by speakers… So interrupt those patterns. Look out for people twizzling long hair, glasses off and on, ballpoint pen popping, phrases like “for those of you who don’t know me” and so on… It’s easy to see this as flippant and trivial details, but for those determined to gain and maintain their audiences attention, it’s essential that we find ways to interrupt our patterns. Good luck.