One of the biggest problems when it comes to public speaking is a fear that your audience will not be interested in or lose interest in what you are saying while you are in the middle of your speech. To tell you the truth, this does happen often! Many speakers come on stage and go on talking for a long period of time not realizing that the audience has completely zoned out!
If you’re starting out as a public speaker, this might be an on-going fear or might have been something you have already faced. Either way, there are some things you can work on that can help you keep your audience engaged and avoid a “zone out”.
I’ve read quite a lot of articles, seen videos and been advised in person about what to do when you’re losing your audience during a presentation. While the intention was good, the problem with that advice was that it assumed I was already a well-trained speaker.
The advice would say things like ‘make your body language more engaging’, ‘vary your tone so you don’t lose your audience’, ‘use humour’, ‘be dynamic’ etc. All of this sounds great, but how do I apply that when I’m just starting out?
In this article, I’ve tried to include only those points that you actually can control even if you’re not a frequent speaker.
Warning Signs of a Bored Audience
Before we dive in, let’s look at some signs that your audience might be making when they’re tuning out during your speech. These things might help you give a heads up when you’re losing your audience during a presentation.
No Eye Contact
When your audience is maintaining eye contact with you throughout your speech, it is a way of saying that they are really interested in what you are saying. If their eye contact is all over the room – if they are looking at their watch, scrolling or texting on their phone – they are probably not very engaged with the speech.
Bored Body Language
This is key. Think about the time when you had to sit through a boring lecture or presentation. How does your body language become? You slouch, you rest your chin on your hand, you cross your hands, you put your head down – these are all signs that the audience makes showcasing their disinterest in the speaker.
Whispering and Talking
If you can’t see it, hear it. If the audience is cross talking, it probably means that they want to talk about something more interesting than the ongoing speech. In a truly engaging speech, you don’t want to talk to the person sitting next to you. You want to listen to the ideas being spoken about.
Be aware of these signs. One of the main reasons speakers lose their audience and are not able to re-gain their attention is because they are not even aware of the fact that they have lost their attention in the first place!
How to Avoid Losing the Audience’s Attention?
Here are some things which you can control (regardless of how experienced you are with public speaking) to keep your audience more engaged:
Knowing your Crowd
Let’s rewind a little to even before your speech starts.
If you talk about banking products and services to a bunch of college students, they are very likely to zone out unless you cater your talk in a manner that appeals to college students.
Speakers feel that they can prepare a speech and deliver the same speech all the time. This is a mistake. The same speech (even if the core message is the same) needs to be tweaked for different audiences. For instance, the banking speech for college students might need to be more light hearted and entertaining while the same speech delivered to banking professionals might need to be more technical and to-the-point.
We have written an extensive article for the same as well, titled The Importance of Knowing Your Audience When Delivering a Speech
Practice and Practice some more!
It’s easy to tell whether a speaker has rehearsed her speech or not. Coming on stage after you’ve practiced your material will not only help you be more confident but will also keep your audience engaged. The audience will recognize that the speaker is someone of authority and someone who knows what she is saying.
Compare this to someone who fumbles, forgets her lines or appears as someone who has clearly not practiced. Getting nervous on stage is completely fine. But not putting in the time to practice is not. This is something completely under your control no matter how familiar you are with the stage.
So, practice. Put in the time to show the audience you care about what you are saying and the audience will reflect it back.
Check out our article on How to Practice for a Speech | Methods and Techniques to know more about the methods for practicing a speech.
Breaking the Monotony
Monotony is the enemy. Think about that speaker who just stood behind the lectern and dragged on and on about some topic that you eventually zoned out on. To keep an audience engaged, you need to keep your show interesting by changing things up from time to time. This is a good way to attract the audience’s attention.
For instance, if you are standing behind a lectern, start off by standing there and as you reach half way through your speech, move away from it and stand at another spot on the stage. Throw in a QnA session in the middle of your speech if you feel it’ll be relevant, ask a question to your audience, use a prop. Do something that breaks the pattern of your speech. Instead of just talking, doing something different (even if it is small) can add an interesting layer to your talk and keep your audience from tuning out.
Pause…and let the silence hang in
This can work like a charm! The thing about pausing is that it completely breaks the expectations of the audience. They are expecting you to talk, talk and talk. But when you pause and let that silence hang in there for a moment, it makes the audience tune back in and wonder “Why is there no talking?”.
If you see your audience starting to zone out, pausing for a moment is almost like a polite way of saying “Are you paying attention?”. Once they notice the silence, they’ll tune back in and are more likely to listen to what you were saying.
Take a Break
When I’m attending seminars or long speeches, it really annoys me when the speaker goes on and on for literally 4 hours without giving the audience a single break in between. In such cases, it’s not that the speaker is boring or the subject being spoken about is boring. It’s just that even though the audience wants to listen and pay attention to what is being said, they also want a small break!
Speakers tend to cram in too much information at once to offer everything in a stipulated time period, but it makes no sense doing this if the audience isn’t going to absorb anything. Small, short breaks where the audience can use the washroom, eat a quick snack or stretch their legs is an important method in keeping an audience engaged.
These above-mentioned things can prove helpful when you are losing your audience during a presentation.
What Are the Perks of Knowing your Audience?
Knowing the audience is important in order to maintain their attention. This involves knowing the audience’s beliefs, interests, perceptions about the topic on which the speech is being delivered.
This will help the speaker get an idea of what the audience is looking for. As long as the speech is aligned with the interest of the audience, there are lesser chances of them being inattentive. This interest of the audience can only be known by doing prior research on the audience’s age, size etc.
One way of getting to know your audience is by doing a background check on the audience which allows you to get to know their profession, interests, their objective of attending the speech etc.
However, at times it is difficult to run such a background check and hence in such a situation powerful icebreakers can often prove helpful. Interactive presentations can tell a lot about the audience and where their interest lies.
Read an extensively written article on Interactive Presentations: 7 Foolproof Ways to Engage the Audience in order to get to know the audience a little better.
Conducting surveys for the target audience well before the presentation can also give valuable insights about the audience.
Often getting feedback from the audience can also help the speaker to get to know the audience and prepare better for the upcoming speech. However, this won’t help for the speech just given but can be useful for future speeches.
Wrong ways to get the Audience’s Attention
There are certain ‘Don’ts’ to keep in mind while addressing an audience as it doesn’t take long to lose their attention.
Don’t Start with Slides
Presentations are often boring and tedious and hence it is better to not start directly with slides. By doing so, the audience is likely to become inattentive sooner than predicted.
Rather, the speaker should try to give some background about the topic before starting with slides. For instance, opening with an ice breaker question and later relating it to the topic can be a good idea.
By starting directly with slides the audience might pay attention initially but will eventually zone out due to its monotony.
Avoid using foul language
Using foul language or offensive words can quickly get the audience’s attention but it doesn’t create a good impression of the speaker. Hence, using such language should be avoided at all costs.
Avoid apologizing for inexperience
Amateur speakers often begin their presentation by apologizing for the lack of experience. This might come out as ‘I don’t deserve your time’, which ultimately leads to losing attention on the audience’s part.
The speaker should rather prepare and practice till the time they feel confident and comfortable with the audience.
Apologizing in case the speaker is sick or is unable to speak loudly is courteous as the audience will understand the situation. However, by apologizing for the lack of experience will lead to losing the audience’s attention level.
What to do if you’re completely losing them?
Sometimes, you might be losing your audience completely. They are just not interested in what you have to say. But responsiveness to audience cues when attention is dropping is a sign of a good speaker. This happened to me when I was working as a sales intern for this company that sells financial courses to senior college students. Even though I had prepared my presentation, was breaking the pattern and pausing, the audience was just not interested. “Maybe I hadn’t catered my talk to suit this particular group of people”, I thought.
Eventually, I asked myself, what is it that these students really care about, and what is the one thing they will get from this financial course that will benefit them the most.
I broke my speech mid-sentence and asked the question, “Hey guys! How many of you can tell me about the name of the financial course I just spoke about for the last 30 minutes?” I got blank stares. Nobody knew the answer, but I had their attention now. I continued, “It’s fine if you don’t know that. The only thing you need to know is that by doing this course you will be receiving a starting salary which 3 times higher than that of your peers as soon as you graduate.” That’s all they needed to hear. I wasn’t lying to them by any means! The course did in fact hike a fresher’s salary up by 3 fold!
When you’re losing your audience, think about the one thing that they would be interested in. then, break your pattern and completely get your attention to that. It’s the most important you can tell them because it is the most important thing they care about! This works great for pitches and business presentations as well. This works great for pitches and business presentations, especially when your audience’s attention is dropping.
Sometimes, you just can’t control it (so enjoy it!)
I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been on stage and the audience has just gone off to dream-land while I’m speaking. Even after knowing and applying all the ideas stated above, sometimes, a speech just doesn’t go that well and sometimes, the audience will zone out. There a thousand things that can go wrong. Some you can control, some you can’t.
Try enjoying your time on stage regardless. With time, you’ll have a hilarious memory to joke about. But more importantly, the next time you go on stage, you will be a slightly more experienced and powerful speaker and know better as to how to attract the audience’s attention.