PRESENTATION SKILLS: What To Do When You Lose Your Audience

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.

What to do when you lose your audience

A presentation should be like a mutually enjoyable walk in the woods.

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


  1. Nancy on February 18, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Once again, you provide very good advice. At many sales presentations, I find that the presenter has their PowerPoint presentation and plows throw the presentation slide by slide. Their audience starts to shut down as the information is not all relevant to them. Your suggestions are helpful and will remind me to engage the audience to find out what is important to them and start from there.

    Thanks, Pete!

    • Pete Machalek on February 18, 2016 at 6:21 pm

      My pleasure, Nancy! And very well described. We often help presenters create interactive PowerPoints and teach them how to engage their audience from the get-go so that audience input steers where the presentation goes, and creates a customized experience for the audience. That’s a terrific way to never lose your audience in the first place!

  2. Dean Hyers on February 18, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    This post so describes a situation I’ve found myself in a ton of times. I’m thinking of one where I got the feeling I had lost them, or that they’d lost interest in me, so I did ALL those things, more or less in sequence: 1) I stopped and took a beat to think. They definitely noticed this moment with curiosity. 2) I did a quick review, to show them that there was indeed a “path” here I was following. 3) I asked the audience how my talk was landing, and someone got up and voiced a clear disconnect. There was something the group didn’t “like” about where I was going, and I had glossed over something they wanted to hear more about. 4) So I involved them in steering me. I gave them some options, and used the remaining time in a slightly different way that still brought me to my desired end, but with the piece they wanted to hear more about. And I was rated very highly, even though I was losing them 3/4 into the presentation. Pete, you nailed it. Great post.

  3. Hannah Rose on February 21, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    This is a great topic. We never really know our audience until they start responding or tuning out. Some just aren’t conditioned to listen, no matter what. Also nice to be reminded if I work at engaging them, they will probably grasp that much and appreciate it–whether they retained anything I presented or not.

    Thanks again! 🙂

    • Pete Machalek on February 22, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Hannah! I always like to keep as much responsibility for my audience’s attention as possible, because that gives me more opportunities to do something about it. So I don’t worry about what they are or aren’t conditioned for, I don’t worry about whether or not they’re listening to me or grasping what I’m talking about or appreciating any of it. I’m just focused on creating a two-way communication channel with them. The better I listen and respond, the higher the quality of that conversation.

      What do you think?

  4. Kemal Balioglu on February 23, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    Great post, Pete. I like the analogy of the journey but it raised the question in my mind how we recognize that we lost or are ahead of the audience. I know from own (painful) experience that audience reaction is a culturally influenced behavior and can lead to wrong assumptions easily. What worked best for me is to admit my perception (that I feel like that I lost them) and engage them to first verify my assessment and then work together to get on the same path again.

    • Pete Machalek on April 1, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      Kemal, I love your careful wording here — that you *feel like* you lost them. It takes ownership for your own perceptions, it doesn’t put anyone down, and it opens up the possibility of audiences recognizing that they’re not with you. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Barb Eischen on May 20, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Good advice! I am in my “encore” profession, moving from human resources and making business presentations, to teaching adults English as a second language. Your ideas parallel adult education principles perfectly. First activating the students’ “schema,” or their current knowledge, then stopping to assess learning and repeating or changing directions as needed, summarizing the lesson, and inviting dialogue to ensure you are all traveling along the same path.
    I always find your ideas insightful. It was rewarding to notice the parallels to adult ESL education. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us, Pete.

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