John Charles Walsham Reith was born in a small town in Aberdeenshire, and grew up to be the First Baron Reith, Director-General of the BBC. The motto that took him there was simple: “inform, educate and entertain.” Well, those aims are just as good for public speakers as they are for public broadcasters.
The audience you’re speaking to are the most important people in the room. Your content can be as great as you like, but if you fail to interact with your audience and keep them awake they simply won’t hear it. So how do you ensure they don’t nod off, and that they’re listening to your every word from beginning to end?
There are an awful lot of ways to achieve this, and a lot will depend on context: humour can be really useful, but isn’t always appropriate; props can be a superb means of attracting and keeping attention, but are they welcome in the boardroom? Possibly not.
So understanding your environment and audience are the most important elements in arriving at a few key strategies to hold everyone’s attention. In every instance, however, it will be a core set of public speaking skills which allow you to deploy those strategies to their best effect.
Your audience won’t fall asleep if you vary your voice, appeal both to their head and their heart, and tell a great story.
What else? Well, this might seem obvious but it’s very often overlooked: communicate clearly. A well-structured speech, given confidently and with lots of sign-posting for the audience, will do wonders. People pay more attention if they understand where you’re going and where you’ve come from. Help them to follow you and they’ll repay that effort.
One great way to structure a speech is around a key question: if you kick off your presentation with a question you immediately grab the audience’s attention. They will be expecting something like a lecture: being talked to, not conversed with. A question includes them in your speech from the off, and will pay dividends in terms of attention span.
In fact, take that technique one step further: learn to look at your audience and invite their interaction. Stop and ask if anyone has a question; wonder aloud if anyone has thoughts about what you’ve just said. People like to offer their opinion – so give them the opportunity and they will engage.
Finally, and amid all this other stuff, tell a great story. People often won’t remember everything you say, but a telling anecdote or a general framework can and will stick in their heads. Handouts, slides, jokes and props are all optional and vary greatly in their use and appropriateness … but a good story is never out of place.
Go out there and make Lord Reith proud!