One of the most important challenges for a presenter is first grabbing and then keeping the attention of an audience. If the presenter is unable to do this, the presentation might not succeed, no matter how valuable the content might be. When a presenter is waiting for his turn and slyly looks over the crowd before having to step in, panic tends to overwhelm. This is a familiar feeling for many.
Audiences might seem intimidating or too chaotic at first but there are ways to grab and keep their attention. We must remember here that grabbing their attention is not enough. We must hold their attention during the entire length of our presentation. Many speakers try to grab attention in numerous ways, e.g. by telling the latest joke or by making a flamboyant entry. This can grab attention but does not establish relevance, so after some time people might wander away or fall off.
This kind of attention grabbing trick, which is not actually relevant to the topic or theme of the presentation, may be effective in grabbing attention for the presenter momentarily, but then people see these as tricks and seldom remember the actual presentation or the message it had for them. Jumping on the table or landing on the stage from a helicopter would definitely catch the audience, but if your presentation is not as flamboyant and gripping the effect wears off quickly.
Here are some of the most commonly used methods for successfully getting and keeping audience attention.
1. Asking a question.
You can ask a rhetorical question or something that involves everyone by getting him or her to think about the topic.
- How many of you in this room have hated filling up tax returns?
- How many of you drive a German car?
- Are our competitors driving us out of the market?
You can wait a short time after the question to get some information about your audience, but don’t wait too long as members of the audience feel stupid if no one knows the answer. Avoid open-ended questions and ask only questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no unless you are confident in skilfully using such questions. If you ask too general questions like “What is the purpose of life?” people might form an impression that your presentation is very general.
2.State an impressive fact.
Begin with a shocking, unusual or impressive fact connected to the theme of your presentation.
- We are going to be out of business in six months if we allow our competitors to outrun us like this.
- The demand in the market has doubled in the last three years and our market share has risen by only 1%.
3. Tell a story.
Telling a personal story closely connected to the theme of your presentation is a great way to begin. People usually like to hear personal stories, which are not too long or try to glorify the narrator too much.
“Dear colleagues, before I begin I would like to tell you a short story about how our service got its name. Don’t worry, it’s not too long“.
A Tale from India
Three fish lived in a pond. One was named Plan Ahead, another was Think Fast, and the third was named Wait and See. One day they heard a fisherman say that he was going to cast his net in their pond the next day. Plan Ahead said, “I’m swimming down the river tonight! Think Fast said, “I’m sure I’ll come up with a plan.” Wait and See lazily said, “I just can’t think about it now!” When the fisherman cast his nets, Plan Ahead was long gone. But Think Fast and Wait and See were caught! Think Fast quickly rolled his belly up and pretended to be dead. “Oh, this fish is no good!” said the fisherman, and threw him safely back into the water. But, Wait and See ended up in the fish market. That is why they say, “In times of danger, when the net is cast, plan ahead or plan to think fast!“
4. Cite a quotation.
Quotations are much used for presentations and they add a colourful touch to your personal style.
“A short saying often contains much wisdom.” Sophocles (496 BC – 406 BC)
“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”
Though they may be impressive, quotations do not have much shock-value and could be forgotten quickly. So they should be augmented by other methods of gaining audience attention. Remember also that use quotations sparingly. If you use too many quotations, people start to think that you have nothing original to say as you’re always borrowing other people’s sayings.
5. Narrate a joke.
Jokes are wonderful for relaxing the audience and setting a cheerful mood. Relaxed audiences tend to be more interactive. This might make the presenters work somewhat easier.
The joke must be appropriate. People have very different senses of humor and you have to be very careful with jokes. What might produce rolls of laughter from one audience might cause stunned silence in another.
Experiment with the joke first with people you know to check how it works and if poor language skills hinder understanding of the joke. It is very embarrassing if you are the only one who gets the joke and no one can laugh for the right reason. Some jokes to avoid are sexual, religious, ethnic and political issues as people are very sensitive in these areas.
One thing to be careful about is the cultural relativity of humor. In many cultures the locals crack jokes about many things and everybody rolls in laughter, but the moment a person from another culture or overseas head office makes the same joke, it can cease to be a joke and become a cultural affront.
6. Go among the audience.
Presenters usually keep to the area in front, near the laptop or the transparency projector. This creates a comfort zone for many people in the audience. Some courageous presenters disturb this comfort zone of the audience by walking closer or going absolutely to one side. Then the primitive instincts of the people in their comfort zone start waking them up. “The presenter is so close and next he’ll even ask me something, so I better be alert“.
Attention-grabbing skills are important for establishing relevance to your audience. Most of the people in the audience are often not mentally present or with you when you begin to speak. Even if they are physically present there and are trying to look interested, in reality, they are in their own worlds. They are thinking about work matters, planning the rest of their day, thinking about a problem of their own or just daydreaming. You have to bring them into your world and get them interested in your subject.
Attention-grabbing skills are your tool for helping the audience tune in to your subject. These skills for grabbing audience attention is not about your ego, you’re just helping them to tune in. When you have something worthwhile saying, and your audience feel that you’re actually guiding them and helping them focus on your topic, they will appreciate this and reward you with eager attention and active participation. Then at the end you will feel elated as they clap to show their appreciation.
The best place to keep a presentation is a prison; they already have a captive audience.
Enjoy your presentations!