Holding audience attention

Storytelling

July 27, 2022

Every great speaker has one thing in common, no matter their audience or topic. 

They grab their audience's attention—and they keep it. 

As American academic Chip Heath once said, the first problem of communication is getting people's attention. In theory, this seems simple. But in reality, it takes skill and technique. Connecting with the audience personally and telling a story that resonates with them helps hold their attention and make presentations more powerful. 

This article discusses the secrets and techniques for grabbing your audience's attention.

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

How to keep the audience on their toes

Whether pitching a startup to an investor, addressing new employees, or presenting to leadership, we spend a lot of time trying to grab an audience's attention. 

But it can be an uphill battle. Audiences are distracted by the birthday cake in the next room or the plans they have after work. Even the buzz of their smartphone or a Slack notification pinging is enough to interrupt a presentation. Once you lose their attention, it's hard to get it back. 

And then there's the biggest buzzkill of all: a speaker without a compelling reason for making a presentation. Chris Anderson, the curator of  TED Talks, wrote in Harvard Business Review that the only way to give a good talk is to have something worth talking about. 

"We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories, and metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people. When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey," he says.  

"A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward."

People's attention spans are getting smaller and they're increasingly distracted, so it's up to the speaker to keep audiences engaged. 

Here are four techniques to do just that. 👇

1. Involve the audience early 

Attention can be won or lost during the first five minutes of your presentation. 

Answer questions and interact with the crowd to engage with them early. Try interactive activities like polling to get them involved, and ask the audience questions using a show of hands or even tools like Poll Everywhere to get their responses anonymously. 

By engaging the audience early in your presentation, you can tap into their interests and bring them together.

2. Try to fit into their world 

Share something your audience can relate to. 

Discuss a topic or mention your product in a way that resonates with their pain points. Steve Jobs used this tactic during his 2007 keynote speech, where he launched Apple's first-ever iPhone. 

Jobs launching Apple's first iPhone in 2007. He discussed the phone's customizable interface to connect with the audience. Image source


He talked about the pitfalls of current smartphones on the market and how the iPhone would overcome every one of them. 

"They all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application. Well, every application wants a slightly different user interface, a slightly optimized set of buttons. And what happens if you think of a great idea six months from now? You can’t run around and add a button to these things. They’re already shipped," Jobs said while discussing the downsides of smartphones like Blackberries. 

"They can’t change for each application, and they can’t change down the road if you think of another great idea you wanna add to this product. Well, how do you solve this? It turns out, we have solved it!"


The story connected a common problem (one his target audience likely faced) to a solution—the new iPhone. 

It was Jobs' way of saying, we're in this together. 

3. Know your presentation well

Memorize the first few minutes of any presentation you do. 

Get your timing, inflection points, expressions, and tone down so you come across as an expert. Keynote speaker Jody Urquhart says practice separates a good public speaker from a great one, especially when delivering a new presentation. 

"Make sure you know your stuff by heart so that when you deliver, it doesn’t seem like you are reading," she says.  

"I like to have 20 % of new content for any group so it relates to their specific pain and challenges. Because it's new, I need to practice it more to make sure it's relatable."

4. Own the stage

Finally, confidence is key if you expect anyone to listen to your presentation.

In addition to practicing your presentation, own the stage by ending your speech with attention-grabbing statements like: 

You can use any of these phrases as a conclusion to your presentation. They give your audience something to think about and help them reflect on the most important points you present. 

Learn how to use the audience to your advantage

When an audience invests their time in a presentation, they want the speaker holding the session to excel. 

The best speakers understand the audience plays a pivotal role in the success of any presentation. They know how to win them over and switch up presentation material to connect with even the most difficult crowds. 

One trick to engage with any crowd is to recruit audience champions 🏆 

The power of audience champions

Audience champions support speakers through the good (and bad) parts of a presentation and encourage positive participation from the rest of the crowd.

Get audience champions involved in your presentation early by calling them out by name. These champions will usually answer questions, come up with talking points or challenge the speaker on their topic. It also makes their conversation more engaging since the crowd feels the speaker is personally invested in the audience champion. 

Most importantly, these champions help speakers avoid awkward silences throughout their presentation.

Here's how to activate champions during your speech. 👇

Get a head start with social media and email 👨‍💻

Social media channels like Twitter and LinkedIn are great places to connect with your audience.

These channels give speakers a medium to connect with target audiences and start conversations before they step onto the stage. SaaStr does this for its annual conference by showcasing keynote speakers on its LinkedIn feed in the weeks leading up to the conference: 

Image source

Attendees can learn about a keynote speaker's background and what they'll discuss to help them decide whether they want to watch the presentation. 

Email can also be a great way to reach out to people attending an event. Nathan Latka, owner of FounderPath.com, personally invites email subscribers to events and even invites them for coffee beforehand. 

This is a great way to get audience champions on board before the event even starts. 

Reach the venue early and socialize 🤝 

Be prepared to put in the groundwork to find your audience champions. 

Get to the venue early and start socializing. It's easier to talk to people in person at the event and find anyone who will be attending your presentation. 

When Ryan Deiss, founder of The Scaleable Company, was keynote speaker at Drift's HYPERGROWTH conference in 2018, he mingled with attendees and even took photos with them. 

The time Deiss spent connecting with people before his presentation gave him a chance to talk to them about their pain points and reasons for attending the conference. This (very valuable) information can then be used to personalize the presentation, so it really hits home for the people in the audience. 

Bridge the gap and acknowledge the crowd

Finally, close the physical proximity you have with the audience once your presentation starts. 

Being close to your audience makes them feel connected. Many top speakers walk to the front of the stage, and some even climb down to get closer to the crowd. 

This not only closes the gap between you and your audience, but it can also make them feel appreciated as well. Ask them the right questions, encourage them to share an opinion and allow them to contribute to the conversation can turn them into audience champions and make your presentation go smoothly. 

Prepare for every audience to help you deliver like a pro

Every audience is different. Preparing your presentation for each one should be a priority. 

Engage with people in the audience and grab their attention by tapping into their pain points. Get the audience involved early by interacting with them and recruiting champions to keep people interested.

The best speakers on the planet don't just speak. They engage with their audience and hold their attention from their first word until their last. Using the simple techniques in this article, you can connect with your audience every time.

Level up your next presentation by understanding your audience. Check out Prezent's detailed article on getting to (really) know your audience here.