Almost everyone we ask says they want to be an engaging speaker. When pressed as to why they aren’t using engagement techniques, sometimes they admit they don’t know how, or don’t quite have the courage to try it. Sometimes they are afraid they might come across as contrived or insincere, so they steer away from engaging, or use the same techniques over and over.
We agree that engagement must be fresh, sincere and appropriate to the audience and the presentation itself. So, we think you would benefit by hearing some new ideas. Here is a bounty of fresh (and tried and true) ideas, many of which we hope will intrigue you or spark a new idea. Take a risk, be fresh and original, try new approaches, and you too can become a more engaging speaker.
Ask for a show of hands. Start with simple, closed ended questions such as “how many of you have clients facing this issue?” The right questions should yield good information, help you read and connect with your audience, and keep them engaged.
Have them introduce themselves to one or two people. Keep them in their seats but have them say hello to the people on their left, right, or both. This raises the energy level in the room significantly and can help make people more comfortable. People feel safer (and thus more engaged) when they know who is in the room.
Use a little humor. Don’t try to be a standup comic, but a few one-liners or quips go a long way to making a session fun and interactive. Don’t make any comments that could be construed as negative, demeaning, sexist, racist or just plain mean. Laughing at yourself, lightly, is often best.
Have them write something down. Writing challenges learners to use a different part of their brain. It takes them more time than listening, so it slows them down a little. You can use writing it down to indicate information that is most critical. Have them write in the margins of their handouts, or on sticky notes or note cards.
Give them a problem to solve. Pose a simple case study and see if the learners can quickly come up with the right answer. You can have them work alone or give them two minutes at tables or small groups. Keep them sitting in place in order to get back to work quickly.
Quiz them. Something about the word “quiz,” is an instant attention-getter. Take a moment periodically to review by posing a series of questions. You could write them on a flipchart spontaneously or build them into a slide. You may choose to have people work alone, or in teams or small groups to build community and energy.
Use live polling. Plan a series of discussion points and then use live polling to capture ideas, quiz people or ask for their opinions. For example, in product training, show or tell about the product and then quiz people on what they learned. For example, in safety training, poll people on how many know safety procedures, or how many have seen safety violations.
Ask them to stand up or sit down. If people have been sitting a long time, have them all stand up. Then ask a question, and those who answer correctly could sit down. Then another, then another. The people who are standing the longest are those who have the most experience in the field, travelled farthest to get to the session, or who answered the most questions correctly. They get to stand up and you get to learn something about them.
Take a physical break/stretch. Maybe you don’t have time for a complete break, but people look like they need one. Have everyone stand up and touch their toes or walk around the room and back to their chairs. Or just have them lift their arms to the sky and take a few deep breaths. Be sure you do it with them!
Fill in the blanks. When there is a lot of material on the slide or in the handouts, leave a few key words out, and ask learners to fill them in as you speak. Writing engages the brain in a different way than passive listening, so they are more likely to remember.
Encourage them to ask. Some of us fear questions, but questions from listeners can be the best thing to happen for your whole audience. When you ask them for their questions, they can tell you what is most important or most confusing. When you get a question, answer it cordially and move on to the next question or back to your content. Never show irritation or displeasure, the audience may shut down.
Take and use photos of people, product, or locations. Whenever you are speaking about your team, your manufacturing process, your facility or the quality of your product, consider using photos. When you use company-owned or take your own high-quality photos, you won’t have to worry about copyright or royalty issues.
Insert short video clips to hear from clients, experts, or leaders. Hearing from someone else can be compelling. Maybe your organization has video or audio clips you can use, but if not, consider creating your own. They don’t have to be production-quality to add value but be sure they are clear and compelling.
Outline their expectations and then adapt your presentation to meet them. Perhaps you could start your presentation with a series of questions, then tailor your remarks to highlight what the audience is most interested in. Or offer a choice of topics and move to the content that will resonate most. In a large group or online you could use polling technology to get a read of your audience.
Offer them alternatives. In a more intimate setting, you could set the stage and then reorder your presentation based on what they are most interested in hearing. In a large group you could ask for a show of hands to find out where to begin. Be sure to design your presentation slides so that you can quickly go to any given section easily.
Create a “Round Robin” discussion. Set it up so that you can hear from everyone, especially when you are brainstorming or seeking opinions. In this case you would offer a question or discussion topic, then go around the table or room to hear from each person. Try to let everyone speak first, then go back and discuss opinions or thoughts that are worthy of more time. This can yield you a wealth of information about what the audience is thinking.
Table or small-group discussions. This works best when your audience knows a fair amount about the topic, and you want them to come up with ideas, decisions, or share their knowledge. Be sure to set up the discussion parameters and timeframe so people know what to expect. You can circulate around and listen in on a few discussions, and then draw out highlights as a debrief.
Tell a story to illustrate your points. Prepare well so that you have a compelling story that you can tell easily, that elicits emotion, and has a positive ending. Rehearse so that you can tell the story in a minute or two. Be sure to tie it clearly to the point you are making.
Format your presentation like a story with a problem and solution. The story format of problem—action—resolution works well in a presentation, because it captures attention (the problem) builds tension (the action) and ends with satisfaction (the resolution.) Make sure each part of the presentation is leading up to the satisfactory ending.
Personalize your content with plenty of pertinent examples. Think about your listeners and what they have told you. If you can, choose examples and illustrations that relate to them. For example, if your talk has to do with safety, find examples that everyone can relate to, from manufacturing to office workers.
Bring in a newspaper or magazine article pertinent to the topic. You might include the headline on your slide or read the headline to listeners. It creates a third-party testimonial and shows the urgency or timeliness of your topic.
Ask them to fill in the blanks or guess certain facts or data. This might work well in a lunch and learn or conference breakout. Leave blanks on a few slides and see what they think. It engages everyone, especially when the numbers are greater than (or less than) expected.
Provide a demonstration. Maybe you have a demonstration of the strength of your product, or the durability. If you can show them in a demonstration, it creates a powerful sense of reality.
Ask for volunteers. You could ask them to write on a flip chart, track the time, or record action items. These work well in formal training sessions or longer meetings, and it gives participants a sense of ownership. Consider these for team or project meetings.
Ask questions of the audience during the presentation. Rather than waiting for questions from the audience, engage them by asking them a few questions. Consider the difference between, “Are you following me?” and “What is your immediate reaction?” or “How is this striking you?” Open ended questions will usually lead you to more information.
Give a quiz or a test. You can do this at the beginning of your talk (to gather information about the listeners) or at the end (to see how well they listened.) Something happens when we hear we are going to be quizzed; we listen more intently. You quiz can be serious or just for fun, in either case it may spur people to pay close attention.
Plan an interactive opening using questions, asking for a show of hands, etc. “How many of you like music? How many of you like opera? How many of you have listened to opera?” In this opening series of questions, you probably noticed a lot of agreement on the first question, then less on the second, and even less on the last. You have made the audience think and act, and you now have information on how many will be open to hearing your presentation on the opera. You also have a good starting point; most everyone likes music.
Ask participants to write down their burning questions. This is a technique you might use in a large group setting, say a conference breakout or a lunch and learn. Before you begin, have them write down their questions about the topic you are discussing, then, use those cards at intervals or at the end to be sure you have been responsive to their concerns. One option might be to have them raise their hands if their questions have been answered, and then if their questions were not answered, to ask them.
Plan and use simple icebreakers to introduce the topic. Icebreakers get a bad rap, especially when they are long, complicated, and silly. If it is important that audience members build rapport with each other, use a simple, short icebreaker to do introductions and to preview the material to come. For example, ask each person to introduce themselves, say how many years they have been in the industry, and name a current challenge in client development. (Or quality, or customer service, depending on what their role is.) The icebreaker should tie to content and will give you clues about who is there and what some of their interests, experience, etc. are.
If the meeting is long, add stretches and/or breaks. Ideally, you should have a change of pace every 10-15 minutes, and something physical (a break) every hour. Consider what you could do to change the pace, (i.e., stop for questions, watch a video) periodically, and how you could provide a quick break (chat with your neighbor for 2 minutes about this topic, stand up and stretch in place) every hour.
Ask people to introduce themselves. People are often uncomfortable and guarded when they don’t know the people around them, so take a moment (unless everyone knows everyone already) to do a quick introduction. Depending on group size and time, you can go around the room or have people do introductions at tables or just in the seats around them. This can help people feel safe enough to engage.
Engage them physically by asking them to stand, raise hands, clap, etc. You need to know your audience well enough to know how fully they will participate, but if you can get them to do something simple (raise your hand) then the next time you ask (stand up) they will probably be more willing. Be sure you are not putting anyone on the spot by asking them to do something difficult or uncomfortable, especially at the beginning. You want them to feel good about how they engaged with you.
Welcome humor that happens but avoid jokes. Jokes require very specific actions on your part; the set-up, the build and the punchline. If you are not good at jokes, find another way to express humor, like sharing a cartoon. Always consider the joke, cartoon or story, evaluating how risky it might be. If people are offended, then the humor was not worth it. Laughing at yourself can be effective, but too much self-effacement undermines your credibility.
Animate your delivery. Video record your next rehearsal to be sure you are speaking with enough power and expression. Could you be a little more expansive in your hand gestures? Should your voice be a little louder, or have stronger inflections? Could you face be more expressive? Generally, the larger the room the bolder your delivery can be. Ask for some feedback by a trusted colleague to see if you can turn it up or if it’s already at max expressiveness.
Create a demonstration that audience members participate in. Maybe they could hold something, turn the lever or try to break something that is durable. Audience members will love it and find it memorable.
Provide practice or application opportunities. If something calls for practice, not just facts, see if people could try it. For example, if you are teaching closing a sale, create a practice in which people can experience the skills being taught. TIP: most people don’t like the word “role play” at all, so remember to call it “practice.”
Survey them. Online surveys are an especially easy way to gather information. You will engage listeners as they answer the survey questions and again when you reveal what you learned. You will also be able to tailor the content to the interests of the audience, also very engaging.
Understand their current state and address it. If there is any emotion about your topic, it can be helpful to address it. For example, if there is resistance to a new procedure, acknowledging it can be very powerful. Always ask them to confirm with you that you are on track.
Ask them to give a round of applause to something. For example, if sales results in one area have been stellar, or one individual has met a personal or development goal, ask everyone to give that group or person a round of applause. It’s not only engaging to the person being recognized, but to everyone who engaged in the applause.
Keep the focus on you, not the slides. Consider slides only as a backdrop for your talk. Always keep your body facing the audience, keep your eye contact directed at the audience, and interact with people not the slides. Consider using few or no slides at times, so you and the audience can stay totally connected.
Move but with purpose. If you can move closer to your audience and easily get back to the front, consider doing that. Stand in the center at the beginning and end of your presentation, then move with purpose toward the audience. No random pacing!
Choose the ideas you are most comfortable with at first, and as you become more and more comfortable, come back and find something different to engage your audience in the freshest way possible.