How to Capture an Audience’s Attention


We’ve all been there. A boring talk. At a recent conference I keynoted at, I watched as a speaker failed to capture his audience’s attention. The gentleman in the above photo read the newspaper through the speaker’s entire talk and seven people in eyeshot were on their devices for the majority of the talk.

No matter whether you you’re presenting at a conference, to your leadership team, or to your staff, it’s vital that you remember that, at that moment, you’re a sales person in the business of selling ideas. To get the sale, you have to grab your audience and get them compelling reasons to believe you. There are seven keys to success I operate with when preparing and delivering a presentation:

  1. Know thy audience – Do significant research before every presentation. Who’s your audience? What level in their organizations are they? What’s their pre-existing knowledge about the topic? What are their current concerns? How can you most effectively help them? For a recent conference where I keynoted, I interviewed several of the professional association’s staffers, reviewed their website in depth, reached out to a colleague to learn more about the current conditions in that industry, and read several blogs by key voices in their industry. Understand the voice of your customer.
  2. Serve thy audience – It’s not about you and your agenda, it’s about your audience and their needs. If your idea doesn’t help your audience, you’ll never capture their attention. You have to address WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) upfront.
  3. Appeal to emotions – It’s silly (and futile) to try to keep emotion out of business. People are emotional beings, and emotion drives most behavior. To hook your audience, you need to grab them by the heartstrings. Period.
  4. Give examples; tell stories – People love hearing how others operate. It provides both a point of comparison, and one of contrast: “Whew! I’m not alone.” Or.. “Ah, I see the benefits of doing things differently.” Validation can be as important as the call to action.
  5. Make it visual – A picture’s worth a thousand words, and we’re in a visual era, making content-heavy PowerPoint slides even more glaringly ineffective. Use PowerPoint to deepen your message, not deliver it.  If you need wordy slides to remember your material, you don’t know your material well enough.
  6. Limit your message – People can only grasp a few takeaway ideas or calls to action at a time. Most speaking experts suggest covering no more than three key points.
  7. Use repetition and a common through-line – The most effective speakers repeat a single theme throughout their talk. It’s grounding for the audience to be reminded of the connection between the content-of-the-moment and the main message of the talk.

Where to start? Where any improvement-minded person does: with the PDSA cycle (plan-do-study-adjust):

  • Plan – Make an honest assessment of where you are in each of the above 7 areas (gain a deep understanding of the current state). Review the written and verbal feedback you’ve received. Ask people who’ve attended your presentations to give you candid feedback. You will likely be stronger in some and need more development in others. Focus on one or two where you need the greatest development. For example, I’m currently focusing my attention on #4 and #6. Ferociously plan your presentation—remember, you’re on mission—and remember that the ratio of preparation to talk time can sometimes be as high as 10:1. Attention to detail matters.
  • Do – Experiment! You have to be willing to risk failure in order to succeed.
  • Study – Reflect deeply on your performance (and it IS a performance!). Immediately following each presentation, ask 3-5 people to give you candid feedback. I often ask a few people upfront if they’d be willing to serve in that capacity so they can take notes of what worked best and where I lost them. If you speak at a conference, ask to see the written feedback before you leave the conference. It may take months for the conference organizers to send it to you; you need real-time feedback while the presentation’s fresh in your mind.
  • Adjust – This is where the rubber meets the road. Make adjustments based on your honest assessment and the feedback you received and begin planning your next experiment. Practice may never make perfect, but it does allow you to relentlessly pursue perfection, the hallmark of any top performer. A lack of practice makes it tough to become proficient at anything.

To help you on your journey, I highly recommend these three books:

  1. To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink’s latest, which is currently #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover business books. Dan presents the ABC’s of sales, which vary from the traditional use of the term (always be closing): attunement, buoyancy, and clarity.
  2. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. I’ve learned more about public speaking from this book than any other. No matter who you present to and for what purpose, this is a must-read.
  3. Resonate by Nancy Duarte. Nancy’s earlier books on PowerPoint use are also powerful resources, but this one focuses on story-telling.

And a final note, no matter whether you’re presenting a scientific paper to a bone-dry panel of PhDs or a new program to a rowdy group of teenagers, there’s an element of “info-taining” that you need to nail. You don’t have to resort to silly tactics, but you do have to sell. And selling requires that you connect with people, which requires you to move them emotionally. Some way, some how.

by David Kasprzak reply

Good points and great advice all the way around, Karen. I’m beginning to deliver some presentation myself, and the one bit of advice I’ll throw in is that PDSA should be done during the presentation, too. The speaker you mentioned above should have noted people were tuning out and changed the message or the delivery to suit the audience. In a way, this is respect for people – your audience doesn’t owe you their attention, you owe the audience enough respect to make the content and style of your presentation interesting. Also, be humble enough to know that not everyone will find it interesting and you must constantly gauge the audience’s feedback in order to identify what’s working and what isn’t.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you, David. Good points. Very true about respect – I’m kickin’ myself that I didn’t mention it. I continuously scan my audience for signs of engagement or disengagement. and often wonder whether speakers who evoke the type of response in the photo don’t see it, or see it and don’t know what to do about it. In this case, I think the speaker sensed it but made the fatal mistake of being “locked into” his agenda. Proficient speakers (indeed top performers of any type) can adapt quickly to changing circumstances with the sole purpose of better serving their customers. The audience is the speaker’s customer.

    Good point about humility as well. One can’t serve effectively nor improve if he/she doesn’t have a healthy dose of humility. Good points.

by Patrick Phillips reply

Great suggestions for PDSA in presenting. I would add another book I love is “Training From the Back of the Room” by Sharon Bowman. This book is not a perfect fit for presentations that’s not designed for audience participation. I find I can instantly work to engage my audience to telling a self-deprecating joke about how I have failed in the past in my efforts to get me where I am today. Also apply your approach to their intellect (Know thy audience). If they feel like you care what they’re interested in they will stop reading the newspaper while you’re speaking.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you, Patrick, for the book suggestion. I’ve heard of it before but now am going to get it. Here’s the Amazon link for anyone who might be interested – Maybe a key performance indicator for speakers should be the degree to which people aren’t reading the paper. :-)


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