Public speaking: keeping your audience engaged

By Harry Till

February 18, 2021


Whether it is chairing a meeting, contributing in a meeting or giving a presentation, work as a public servant often involves collaboration and the sharing of ideas and information.

When we’re talking to other people, especially people we’re meeting for the first time, I’m sure we’ve all experienced the thought of “How am I coming across? What are they thinking about me?”

And, perhaps most worrying: “Are they interested in what I’m saying?”. Talking in front of others is a skill that I have always been interested in and intrigued by. Drawn from my own professional experiences, here are some tips for presenting and how to keep the audience engaged whilst captivating their attention:

  • Reimagine the presentation: Presentations aren’t too dissimilar from conversations; a person is talking, and others are listening. In a conversation our variations in pitch, tone and sound come naturally. If you reimagine the presentation as a conversation it will help with the flow of your sentences, you will speak with greater fluidity and ease, and your delivery will be more dynamic. The freedom from interruptions in a presentation makes it easier to build up evidence around ideas and points. But it is important to remember the formality of the situation and to slow down from a more conversational pace of talking.
  • Pauses: We’ve all had that moment where we forget what we were going to say, we stumble and pause and that moment searching for the words seems like an eternity. But, although these pauses may have negative connotations, pauses are often extremely useful for the listener and yourself, and often seem longer than they really are. Pauses of only a few seconds are useful moments for the audience to reflect and digest on what you have just said, often they will be more receptive to your following sentences as they will be able to refocus their attention. A pause also lends weight to the subject matter, emphasises its importance and allows your listener to absorb this. Making these deliberate pauses will allow you to catch up or look ahead on your notes and take a moment yourself to reflect on your presentation. Have you missed any points or been talking too fast? These are useful moments to correct yourself.
  • Structure: More often than not, if your audience doesn’t understand the presentation and the subject matter, even for short periods of time, they will switch off as they can only assume the rest of the presentation builds on this point. In order to mitigate this, make it clear to the audience at the start and throughout, what you are going to talk about – “I’ll move onto this topic shortly”. After discussing that area, state you’ve talked about it and link it back to your presentation and your overarching narrative – “We have touched on (whichever topic you’re presenting), but we can see…” Connecting these dots for the audience ensures they understand how your presentation fits together, engages their attention and makes for a complete picture.
  • What does the audience know? Consider how much the audience knows about this subject matter. What is their pre-existing knowledge on this topic and what are you presenting to them? Seek to identify any discrepancies between what the audience knows and what you are telling them. Inform the audience of any relevant information they need to know to allow your points to have the biggest impact. Or, it may be a case that you need to reframe your presentation in a different way to compliment the audience’s knowledge base where they may have partial specialist knowledge in your area. Equally, you don’t want to talk extensively about something they already know, so it is important to gauge the right level, so nothing is lost on the audience. Consider what your presentation will look like to the audience and seek to make it understandable and relevant. The correct level of knowledge is key.
  • If you can, be expressive: Once you become more comfortable presenting and you really want to start captivating attention or emphasise various take-home messages, then be expressive. Gesticulate, vary your voice, smile! Show the audience you are relaxed and enjoying yourself. To practice; film yourself talking to a camera and watch it back. Although incredibly difficult you will start to become aware of what areas of your presentation you need to develop. Whether you need to talk slower or smile more, make eye-contact or stop overusing a phrase, this will focus the areas you need to work on and help you develop as a presenter. Practising your presentation in front of a mirror is great but filming yourself and watching it back (however cringe-worthy it may be!) is the next best thing!

Presenting with confidence is important but not all confident presenters can keep their audience engaged throughout a whole presentation. As said, both the presentation and content are key.

This list is not exhaustive and there are a variety of other techniques and tips out there for presenting (some of which you will discover by yourself) but these tips will help you keep the audience engaged and help you present with confidence.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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