Presentations: Strong Starts Change Audiences from Captive to Captivated

Posted: June 4, 2012 in Marketing Communications, Presentation Skills

How do you close the chasm between you and your audience? That’s your first priority. (Photo by Engin Erdogan, Flickr Creative Commons)

How do you capture attention when presenting to a crowd that doesn’t know or respect you? It’s challenging. But here are a couple of tricks that have worked for me. (These pertain to live presentations, not webinars.)

Choose Your First Impression Deliberately

When you present, you want to establish a connection with the audience instantly. If you come off as robotic, boring, irrelevant, or insincere in the first few minutes of your presentation, even the World’s Most Interesting Man couldn’t regain audience interest. They’re long gone, busily tweeting, emailing, or snoozing. Starting strong is key.

Hooking a big crowd differs from hooking a small group. In both cases, though, playing against type can help.

Hooking a Big Crowd

Let’s define a “big crowd” by the venue. Imagine that you stand on a stage separated from the audience; possibly higher than the audience; possibly lit; certainly using a microphone and perhaps a podium. This is a typical “big conference breakout session” setting.

Seriously? You’re going to make them all sit there while you thank your hosts, the conference, your boss, your company…? What do these people get out of listening, then? (Photo: Patries71, Flickr Creative Commons)

This formal staging invites skepticism. The stage trappings lend an air of authority that can be read as pomposity. People tend to sit in the back with arms folded. They may have already endured lackluster speakers before your session. Your top goal, then, is to break that vibe of “I’m the performing Muppet, and you are Statler and Waldorf wisecracking from the balcony.” You want to establish a feeling of “us learning together.” If you can also tip them off that you’re not a bloviating self-important gas bag — bonus!

The simple solution: break the formality by getting communication flowing in both directions. Begin with informal interaction with the audience. Any ice-breaker might do, as long as you listen to attendees and respond.

Usually I ask the audience questions about themselves. What did you think of the morning’s keynote presentation? What’s your favorite food near this event? I’m new in your town and the traffic is great/awful; why? Use whatever works for you, suiting yours and the audience’s shared interests.

A trusty go-to: ask, Who traveled the farthest distance to attend this session? Let the audience help determine which attendee came farthest. Once we determine the winner, I dedicate the presentation to that person and treat him or her as a VIP. Sometimes I’ve offered a minor prize, and in one venue I was able to send the winner a beer (to the audience’s massive delight and envy).

Is this tricky? Sure; you can hardly hear one another. (Make sure you repeat salient audience answers into the microphone, so everyone can play along.) Is it worth it? You bet. In three minutes, you’ve turned the skeptics into a community of travelers. And – twofer! — you can revive energy and interest mid-way through your preso, by asking the VIP (from the stage) how you’re doing so far. Have fun with it.

Hooking a Small Group

The rules change when presenting to a small audience. (Photo: glennsden28, Flickr Creative Commons)

Let’s define “small group” as: fewer than 50 attendees; all in one room; no one physically higher than anyone else; no microphone. It may be a typical classroom setting, or you might be seated in a circle.

The small group challenge for the presenter is the opposite of the big group challenge. Rather than the stage lending you authority, the closeness lends everyone equal presence. Perhaps everyone’s chatting and no one’s listening. A gregarious attendee might chime in frequently, “co-presenting” with you from his seat. In this setting, you must establish temporary authority, or the group’s social agenda may take over and disregard you.

Once again, the solution is to play against type. In an informal setting, you need some formal presenter pizzazz.

First: stand. If you are the shy retiring type, standing is even more essential. When you’re the only one on your feet, nearly two decades of formative-years classroom experience tells those seated to shut up and show respect.

Second: try a “cold start.” At awesome rock concerts, do bands open with long minutes of thanking the promoter and introducing the members? Hell no! They take the stage and immediately kick ass. Tap into your inner rock star and do the same.

When it’s time to start, do not thank the audience for the opportunity to speak. Do not explain who you are or what you represent. Sans intro, plunge in starkly with a provocative question, startling visual, or arresting statistic.

Corporate audiences fully expect lots of falderol at the start of a presentation. A meaty cold open kicks off your session with a lively pace, and signals that your style is all killer/ no filler. You ambush the yawning audience that thought they were way ahead of you, and mentally they scramble to catch up. (And, much as a TV drama opens with a dramatic chase, then segues to the opening titles, you can add the polite intro five minutes in – after you’ve made your killer impression.)

You Only Get One Chance to Slake a First Depression

Obviously, a strong beginning doesn’t guarantee that your whole presentation rocks. But well begun is half done. And audiences thank you when you do not bore them into depression.

So, choose your first impression with thoughtful intent. In a big venue, try crossing the speaker/listener chasm with small-talk interaction or contests. In a small venue, try mustering authority by standing tall and hitting ‘em with unexpected depth. I wish you every success!

What are your favorite presentation tactics? Please share in the comments!


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