Dean and I were speaking to a room full of professionals recently, and a woman asked us, what do you do when you can tell you're losing your audience?
The question got me thinking about the language that people use around public speaking. Speakers win their audience over, or they lose their audience. Like the audience is a bunch of poker chips.
This language turns the dynamic between you and your audience into a poker game, and it creates a power imbalance between you and them, where they have all the power, and you have only as much as you can get from them.
This doesn't serve you, and it doesn't serve them, so I want to change the language.
Let's talk about it like you're together with your audience, or in different places. So instead of a poker game, it's a journey. A walk in the woods. If you get too far ahead of them, or they fall behind, or they go some place else, or they anticipate you and jump ahead, you're not in the same place. You want to be walking together.
So what can you do when you notice the drift in the middle of your presentation, when you recognize that they simply aren't with you?
First, stop where you are. When you're speaking, it's easy to get the bad idea that it's wrong to stop speaking. But actually, stopping can be quite effective. It's a great way to shake things up, to wake them up out of the state they are in, to give yourself a little time to figure out where you are, and to give you an opportunity to think.
Second, talk about where you have been. If it looks like people are lost, get them caught up by reminding them about the path you've taken so far. Where were they when you started? What have you covered?
Third, ask them questions to find out where they are. When we think of presenting as a poker game and we suspect we've lost our audience, we are often too afraid to see if we can confirm it because we'd rather hope they're still with us than found out that they are somewhere else. But when we think of it as a walk in the woods together, it's really valuable to know where they are every step of the way.
Fourth, engage them to talk about where to go next. Transforming the presentation into a dialogue can be hugely effective. We are all surrounded by so many video screen experiences now that it's easy to fall into a "permanent audience" stupor. Live presentations should always have at least the possibility of some interaction, if only to knock the audience awake. And if you actually engage them to get their input and incorporate it into the content, then they are co-creating your presentation with you, and as a result, of course they're going to be more invested in it. This is best done from the beginning of the presentation, but if you recognize half way into your presentation that this audience wanders if you talk too much, then pull them into it. Ask about where they want to end up in the walk. What did they show up for? What would success be for them?
Above and beyond everything, remember that communication on any level is indeed a communal thing. It's not all about you, and it can't only serve your agenda. It needs to be a "we" thing. The definition of success is that you and your whole audience end up in one place together, distinct and different from where you were when you started.
And when you think about presentations with that metaphor squarely in your head, you're already a giant step ahead of where you were when you were worried about "losing your audience."
What do you think about this? Please share your thoughts below! And to learn how to create and deliver a presentation that keeps your audience with you every step of the way, check out our film here!