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  • Writer's picturePeter Yawitz

How can I keep an audience from falling asleep?

I give a lot of presentations and try my best to make sure my audiences listen, learn something, and don’t pick up their phones while I’m speaking. Now and then I find myself presenting to people who barely even smile to be polite. Their body language clearly shows, “Listening to you is absolutely the last thing I want to be doing right now.”

Although I respect everyone’s time and try to cut things short when appropriate, I feel it’s my duty to have people walk away with at least one message that will help them in their work lives. (Besides, since I’m usually being paid to speak I want to earn my keep.)

Here are some tricks I use to make audiences pay attention:

  • I let them know at the outset why the material is specifically important to them.

  • I give a brief agenda so that they’ll know that by the time I get to penultimate item they can say to themselves, “Yippee, I’m almost out of here.”

  • I change visual aids frequently and make sure that they don’t all look the same. Sometimes I’ll turn the projector off and force them to look at me, heh heh heh.

  • I relate a bunch of specific examples to elucidate my points.

  • I keep them engaged with my natural charm, intelligence, sense of humor and good looks.

I also try to break the proceedings up by asking an open-ended question or two. This technique normally gets a handful of naturally chatty people involved, but can backfire with a totally catatonic group. Advice: come prepared with some questions that other audiences have asked you and say, “I was recently asked…” (This plan works pretty well even if no one has indeed asked you that specific question before.) Most of the time people will start asking more questions as follow-up.

One last thing: a lot of people ask me if they should start off with a joke. Think of the last time a non-funny person tried to tell a joke and how you felt. Don’t be that person.

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