There’s nothing worse than realising mid-presentation that your audience is asleep. In fact, a recent Harris Poll survey discovered that half of respondents do something other than listen during a presentation. Texting, checking email, and dozing off were the most popular distractors.
But what if there was one simple, powerful way to get your audience hooked the moment your presentation starts? In this article, Sara Seamons shares not just one, but seven, great ideas to hook your audience and keep them engaged throughout.
An Opener to Remember
I’d definitely consider myself a TED Talk junkie. Of all the TED Talks I’ve seen, easily one of my favourites is Amy Cuddy’s presentation Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.
I would recommend this talk to anyone interested in an inspiring, highly relatable perspective on body language, but let’s talk about the way Cuddy connected with her audience.
As soon as Cuddy walks out on stage, she explains that she’s about to divulge a free, no-tech life hack for posture. Then she asks the audience a direct question: “I want to ask you to right now do a little audit of your body and what you’re doing with your body. How many of you are sort of making yourselves smaller? Maybe you’re hunching, crossing legs, maybe wrapping your ankles…?”
As she’s describing these postures, the camera pans over the TED audience seated in the auditorium. One gentleman in the crowd notices himself on the presentation monitor and immediately sits up straighter, eliciting a warm chuckle from the audience. Cuddy smiles onstage and responds, “I see you.”
You can watch it here (0.00 to 1.04)
Aside from setting up her subject matter brilliantly, there are two very important things that Cuddy did absolutely right in this intro:
She Quickly and Resoundingly Broke the Fourth Wall
In theatre, the space between an actor and the audience is known as The Fourth Wall. In most stage plays, actors pretend that they are hidden from view, never acknowledging that they have an audience watching them through the transparent fourth wall.
Presentations are quite similar. People come to presentations to listen, to learn something, perhaps to be entertained. But very rarely do they come expecting to be a part of it, to play a role in the drama.
Cuddy established right from the beginning that she was not only aware of her audience, but wanted them to be active participants in her talk. She wanted them to know right away that her solutions were for them individually. This is why she addressed her audience members as “you” and showed them that she wasn’t just some expert blabbering away onstage. She was looking beyond the stage, straight through the invisible wall that usually divides presenters from their audience. She noticed them.
She Turned Her Talk into a Personal, Physical Experience
When listening to a lecturer, it’s easy to disengage. Lots of presenters waste a lot of breath talking about themselves and getting very theoretical and tangential about their topic. But instead of relying on the sound of her voice alone, Cuddy invited the audience to connect with their own bodies, to notice and feel how they were sitting. She invited them to engage more of their senses than just their hearing.
In fact, she was engaging them with their most memorable and illuminating sense of all, which is your sense of touch. This is effective interaction to the max and exactly the kind of method that makes a presentation memorable even years later.
Why Do Interactive Experiences Stick?
Both of Cuddy’s intro methods – getting personal with her audience and engaging their senses – are staggeringly effective ways to hook your listeners from the very beginning. Why? Because human beings remember sensory experiences.
Many researchers out there have uncovered quantitative data on how different human senses factor into your memory of an experience. Which stimuli are the most important and the easiest to remember in hindsight?
Well, according to a 2014 study, auditory stimuli are actually the easiest of all to forget. The researchers tested participants’ retention level of three different types of stimuli: auditory, visual, and tactile (touch).
After a short interval, most participants could remember all three fairly well. But after a long interval, stimuli that they heard were much more difficult to remember than those that they saw and touched. In the end, their sense of touch won out by a huge margin: more than 17% easier to retain than hearing.
So what does this mean for your presentation? Obviously you shouldn’t go around patting all your audiences members on the back. That’s just awkward. But maybe we could take a page out of Ms Cuddy’s book and find innovative ways to use visual and tactile stimuli in our presentations. We can break down that fourth wall of our stage so the audience feels like a meaningful participant and sees connections between our visuals and themselves.
Involvement Is the Key
Obviously the type of interactive method you use should depend on what kind of audience you’re speaking to and what your presentation is about. But there are plenty of creative ways to pull your audience into your presentation and get their senses involved. Here are seven ideas to try:
1) Poll your audience
Raising your hand doesn’t take much effort, but when an audience is nodding off on you, asking them to think about their own experiences and raise their hands for the rest of the room to see is a super easy way to wake them up. Beyond that, it’s applying your message directly to them.
Another fun way to poll your audience is giving participants an online survey prior to your presentation. This is especially useful for sharing exact stats and specific insights, but physical engagement at the live event is your best bet to ward off snoozing.
2) Ask questions
This is exactly what Cuddy did, and all kinds of questions and methods can work during a presentation. You can ask a question to get people thinking, or you can ask a question to spark discussion and invite the sharing of personal experiences.
Just be sure to specify if your questions are rhetorical or non-rhetorical. If you want people to raise their hands and speak up, start your question with phrases like “Who in this room . . .” or “I want you to share a time when you personally . . .”
3) Leave blanks on your slides and ask the audience to fill them
This can be a particularly fun exercise when you’re presenting mind-boggling findings in your data or a connection that people would never guess. It also creates an information gap, giving your audience a mystery to latch onto.
This is one of the most classic and easy ways to keep your audience engaged with what you’re saying. Let them anticipate the answer to the mystery before your big reveal then use the interesting piece of information as a transition point to open the next part of your talk.
4) Call an audience member onstage for a demonstration
This one isn’t always possible depending on your topic, but asking for a volunteer to join you onstage instantly preps your audience for new information and surprising outcomes. It might be worth considering.
A lower-pressure version of getting an audience member involved is simply asking for a volunteer to act as scribe while you’re brainstorming ideas from the audience. You can also ask someone to record action points for your audience to remember.
5) Show video clips
An estimated 65% of people are visual learners. Why go with a boring PowerPoint when you can tickle your audience’s visual curiosity with video? Video has become the visual medium of choice for today’s audience, which explains why YouTube alone streams over 3 billion hours of video every month. Wow!
Look for video clips that demonstrate aspects of your presentation. Humorous video especially is going to grab your audience’s attention fast, but make sure your clips directly or very creatively tie into the point of your talk. Audiences get distracted easily enough as it is. Let’s remind ourselves how Cuddy pulled video into her presentation:
Watch it here (1.05 – 1.40)
6) Give a quiz, a question, or something important to remember at the very beginning of your presentation
In miniature, this is giving your audience a challenge right from the start. Can they remember to watch for something important in your slides? Can they remember and name all four of your mind-blowing insights for a 20 dollar bill?
This is also a challenge for you to bring your presentation full circle and literally or figuratively pay up when your audience succeeds. Once again, this is setting up anticipation to keep your audience guessing and listening throughout your talk.
7) Tell a great story
This is one of the most powerful and simple ways to hook an audience at any point in your talk. Why? Because human beings love stories. Beyond that, hearing a well-told story – especially one based on true events – creates empathy in your audience and helps them attach genuine feelings to your presentation.
You may not think of storytelling as an “interactive” presentation method, but inviting audiences to share in your experiences and feel something real is the deepest type of interaction you can have.
Cuddy herself closed her presentation by telling her own personal experience of her car accident, her difficult journey to Princeton, and overcoming her feelings of not belonging there. I can attest that her tale was both relatable and extremely memorable.
Forging a Real Connection
Anyone can make their presentation more interesting and more memorable by interacting with your audience. So next time you’re on stage, resist the urge to talk for an hour straight. Shake things up. Break down that fourth wall with meaningful questions and sensory experiences. Connect with your audience in a long-lasting way and I guarantee you no one will be napping through your next address. In fact, they’ll be hanging on your every word.
Interaction works. And if your audience feels something during your presentation, rest assured that your message won’t slip through the cracks.
Did you find any of these 7 ways to keep your audience hooked helpful? Share your experience below.