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If You Really Want to Engage Your Audience, Kill the Exercises!

Team huddle to engage your audience
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At one point or another, most of us have been involved in some sort of exercise during a presentation. But do they really work to keep the audience engaged, or are they just a distraction? Here, Jack talks about his experiences and how timing the exercise correctly can make all the difference. 

I was having lunch with two colleagues recently. Let’s call them Josie and Joe. Josie was excited about the talk she was going to give at a conference the following week. It was her first at a conference that size, as her recently published book was a good hook to get speaking engagements.

“What’s your one big objective with your talk?” I asked.

“I want to be a thought leader in my approach to employee engagement,” Josie said. “I’d also like to get some good leads. So I really want to share my best material.”

“Make it interactive!” insisted Joe. “Start with an exercise that gets people moving around. That will really get them engaged.”

“Yeah, I was thinking about that!” Josie jumped.

Joe was already running through a couple of his favorite ice-breakers. Josie’s eyes glazed over as she seemed to be envisioning herself on stage with her audience fully participating and interacting.

“How long is your speaking slot?” I asked Josie.

“Forty-five minutes.”

“If it were me, I’d be careful about over-emphasizing the exercises, especially to open your talk. I’d start with a killer story as an opening, and then, maybe…”

But Josie was hooked.

She and Joe were already choosing an exercise that was sure to get the audience moving around and interacting. I tried to say that this could be an effective way to kick-start a full-day or multi-day workshop…

… but a 45-minute talk?… to position one’s self as an industry thought leader?


Just a month earlier…

… I had opened another conference with the morning keynote, so I had the rest of the day to network and attend other talks and breakout sessions. As the afternoon coffee break was ending, I had to finally have made up my mind which of the three break-outs I would attend in the following time-slot. I was really stuck between two of them.

Two descriptions. Two promises, of sorts.

So I put my proverbial casino chips on black, spun the roulette wheel and walked into the chosen break-out room.

The speaker was introduced with impressive credentials, including the words thought leader and visionary. I was ready to open my mind over the next 50-55 minutes and learn something valuable.

“Is everybody ready?” the speaker smiled.

“Yes!” some of the audience members answered back.

“I said… is everybody ready?”

“YES!” a few more of the audience shouted back.

“OK! Here’s what I want you to do. Form groups of eight to ten people in the back of the room. If there’s not enough room, you can use the stage, the aisles, wherever!”

There room began to buzz with laughter laced with awkward hellos and hand-shaking.

“Now! I want you to form pairs within your groups. Look each other in the eyes without breaking eye contact, and tell a short story of the funniest thing that happened to you in the past week on your way to work. Keep your stories to one minute or less.”

Call me cynical, but I was cynical. Should I dash off to the other breakout? I thought.

Too late. A woman was already pairing off with me, looking me in the eye and asking, “So what was the funniest thing that happened to you on your way to work this week?”

Feigned enthusiasm on my part. I worked up a decent smile as I looked her in the eyes and said, “Why don’t you go first?”

Pairs were still being formed and questions of uncertainty were still being thrown around. The ice-breaker was now a good ten minutes, at which point, the visionary thought leader was trying to get people back to their seats. Fifteen minutes past the hour, he then asked, “OK. What are your big conclusions from this exercise?”

Now it was a forum of conversation.

In my head I heard the ball drop on to the roulette wheel. Bugger. Red. My expected learning experience was turning into pin the tail on the donkey.

At the 25-minute mark, the speaker moved into the body of his talk. At the 45-minute mark, the moderator politely reminded the speaker that he’d need to end “very soon” to leave time for questions. The speaker started speaking more quickly, moving through five slides in as many minutes. Now I was trying to glean something, and I actually think there were some pearls of vision, but all impact was lost.

At the 52-minute mark, the moderator insisted they’d have to close the talk, and, “Sorry, no time for questions.”

“I have some more material here,” smiled the visionary, “and I’m happy to meet outside to go through it and take any questions.”

The audience began to hurry on to their next selected session.

For the speaker, it was, at worst, a reputational set-back and, at best, an opportunity squandered.

The value delivery was simply under-delivered.


Kill The Exercises!

Call me conventional, but a short conference talk is far different from a full-day workshop, or even a multi-day corporate retreat.

For a conference talk, if you can’t provide 45 or 60 minutes of value, it’s my I-wish-I-could-be-humble opinion that you don’t belong on stage. Conference attendees deserve new material, new perspectives and, dare I say, thought leadership.

And if you do belong on stage, if you do have an hour of valuable ganja, why squander it with ice-breakers and exercises?

Because you don’t know how to engage them with the talk itself?

As an audience member, my attention won’t wander if you engage me with a great opening, put it in context, start taking me through a journey, and then… then and perhaps… get the audience involved with some interaction.

Don’t however, squander your precious stage time with getting audience members out of their chairs to play pin the tail on the donkey, or exchange palm readings with their neighbors.

We didn’t come there to play fortune tellers. We came here to learn something valuable.


The big point here is all about adding value

Sure, we came to the conference to, among other things, network and meet new people. But that shouldn’t be what you want to provide to your audience.

We came to your session to learn something… something valuable!

And if you came here to position yourself as a thought leader, sell more books or get consulting gigs, that’s ok. But through it all, share! Show me da’ value!

So, let’s assume you do belong on stage. Let’s assume you do have great material to share, great value to add to your audience’s lives. And let’s assume you do have a common speaking slot of 45 minutes. Here are some, what I believe are, musts for opening to fully engage and hold the audience. 

Deliver on your promise

  • Your talk’s description in the conference program is a promise. It creates an expectation, and the more sophisticated audiences today want new material or new insights. You absolutely must deliver on this.

Deliver on your promise early

  • As entertaining as your opening may be, if you don’t show me how you’re going to deliver on your above-mentioned promise early, I might quietly slip out the side door (lest I be asked to stare at my neighbor!). And that may make it easier for other audience members to follow the, um, cynic.
  • If your opening is catchy but counter-intuitive, within 90 seconds, make a link to your promise for the audience. “And so it is in employee engagement…”

Avoid the small talk

  • I personally don’t thank the organizer… until after my opening grab. I don’t talk about the local restaurant scene or the statue in the center of town, unless it can make a great segue to my promise.
  • I absolutely stay away from re-introducing myself. You should brief your host on that. (See my earlier post on how to get a great conference intro).
  • If the host asks you to provide some of the proverbial “house cleaning,” politely decline. Be clear: “Sorry, but it will kill my opening.”

Start with a grab

  • A short story works well, if you get right into the thick of a short plot with some color about the character.
  • A shocking statistic also works.
  • A provocative question to the audience works well, too, provided that you don’t turn it into a workshop, and provided you don’t brush people off for answers that don’t lead to where you want to go.
  • Be it a story, a statistic or a question, keep it 100 per cent relevant to your message and promise. Your grab can be counter-intuitive. It can raise curiosity about how it links to your promise, but shortly after raising the curiosity, make the link for your audience… which leads us to.

Put the grab in context

  • Make a conclusion to your grab, and then explain how it relates to the rest of your talk.
  • This is a road map. It helps the audience see where you’re going, so at any point that you need to provide (necessary) detail, they won’t feel like they’re on a country road for the first time on a foggy night.

Thank the organizer(s)

  • I just love to do this, and I love it when other speakers do it.
  • Thanking your host and/or the organizers after your grab is absolutely killer. It makes the audience think, “Ah, this guy is good. This lady has us in the palm of her hand.” It’s professional. I often see the audience adjust in their seats and settle in for the promise, the value.

Provide substance to your talk

  • This is the core of your material.
  • I won’t go into detail here. This post is not about structuring a presentation per se, but about how to keep the audience engaged.
  • Nor will I even go through the rest of the structure for a conference talk, except to say…

Now you can insert a small exercise

  • You’ve grabbed their attention in a relevant way. You’ve put it all in context, providing a road map to your valuable, thought leadership stuff. You’ve provided some support content.
  • At about 20 minutes in, you can get the audience involved, but be careful! Don’t make it too long and distracting from the core of your value-add, your thought leadership and your promise.
  • Pause, before doing this, and perhaps change your position on the stage.
  • Instead of having your audience leave their seats and physically interact, insert a brief exercise where the audience might pair up or triple up with their neighbors and contemplate a question that you’ve prepared. Tell them they have one minute, and be disciplined at this.
  • The audience can then “shout-out” their answers by raising their hands and you choosing them.
  • After three answer say, “OK, one more?”
  • Then you may want to have another question, but instead of asking them to pair up, take the answers as an individual shout-out.


Why at 20 minutes?

No matter how engaging you are in your delivery, and no matter how compelling your content, the average human can stay concentrated without transitions for about 20 minutes.

This is exactly the reason that TED Talks use an 18-minute model.

So if your talk is, say, 60 minutes, you may want to insert a second audience engagement exercise, but again, keep it short and don’t ask the audience to leave their seats, lest you risk losing control, and you risk diluting your killer message and, shall we say, thought leadership flow.

If your talk is 90 minutes, now you enter into workshop mode, and yes, you can have more interaction exercises, but again, don’t overdo it if you want to provide fresh thinking and valuable content. Plan your ratio of interactive exercise and your bringing valuable material.

But the shorter the talk, the more you need to focus on sharing your valuable content, delivering on your promise, albeit in an engaging way.


A month later…

I saw Josie and asked her how her conference talk went.

“It felt great. The audience was really into it.”

I smiled politely. “How did the audience respond to your material, and to your approaches to employee engagement?”.

“Well,” she paused, “I had to rush through it. My exercise in the beginning took up a lot of time. But I think they made the link between me engaging them and the importance of engagement in the workplace.”

“Sorry to be critical,” I said. “Personally, when I give a talk, I don’t believe ‘I think they made the link’ is good enough.”

“Yes,” Josie pondered. “Next time I might shorten both exercises.”

“You had two exercises?”

Opportunity squandered, I thought.

Kill the exercises!

Jack Vincent

Jack Vincent

Jack is the author of A Sale Is A Love Affair - Seduce, Engage & Win Customers’ Hearts, which was the Number 1 New Release in Sales on Amazon in February 2015.He’s a sales advisor and trainer to Fortune 500 Companies and startups alike, a marketing consultant in the area of business storytelling and a professional speaker.Jack is a native of Woodstock, NY and now divides his time between Luzern, Switzerland and Madrid, Spain.
Jack Vincent
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