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Tips and tricks for engaging an audience

Charlotte_WrightIn the first of a series of articles written exclusively for FMJ, Charlotte Wright, senior content manager for UBM’s Facilities Show gives her advice on how to make the most of the shows, conferences and seminars that take place in the FM sector

Having spent several years putting together conference programmes, I’ve experienced the full range of speakers – some excellent, some mediocre, some terrible. I must have analysed audience feedback on hundreds, if not thousands, of speakers and repeatedly see some of the same comments about what makes or breaks a presentation. In this article I’ll share some of my top tips for engaging an audience. 

Before you begin drafting your script or firing up PowerPoint, start by thinking about the people you’re presenting to. What do you know about them? Who are they? What problems do they have? What do they already know about the subject? And what would be helpful for them to learn? 

The first couple of minutes set the foundation for the rest of the talk and are crucial for getting the audience on side. Work out how to quickly grab their attention when you step on stage, perhaps with an anecdote, a question or something they’re not expecting.

Another good technique is promising something that’s going to happen as a direct result of the audience listening to you. You might tell them, for example: ‘Within the next 30 minutes you will understand the 5 key reasons why this office move was so successful and you’ll have a list of actions that you could use if you have to lead a similar project.’

It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of narrative in a talk; humans don’t learn by listening to strings of facts; we learn from stories and examples.

Construct your presentation as a journey of where you started and where you have ended up. This provides a structure and gets rid of any details which do not progress that narrative.

Many of the best talks have a structure that loosely follow a detective story. The speaker starts by outlining a problem and then describes the search for a solution. Finally there’s an “aha” moment, where the final solution is presented and the audience’s perspective shifts in a meaningful way.

Like any good story, presentations should have chapters to help the audience (and the storyteller) keep focus. Make the direction of your presentation clear at the beginning with a contents page, for example. Then verbally or visually give your listeners signposts throughout so they know where you’re up to in the story.

Keep your introduction short and sweet so that you can quickly get onto the juicy stuff. During the first 10 minutes the audience’s attention will be at its peak, so it’s a good idea to make some of your main points early on. Then include something at every 10 minute mark that will re-grab their attention.

Often the best speakers demonstrate a strategy, method, or approach that other individuals can use to solve a problem. The more practical, real-world examples that your audience can take away and action, the better (especially when presenting to other FMs). In addition, I can’t stress enough how much positive feedback speakers get when they also share their failures and what’s been learnt from them, so don’t be afraid to show some vulnerability. 

Additionally, if you’re speaking at an event, make your talk tweetable!

Think about your slides as a visual aid that supports your presentation, rather than a script or summary of what you’re saying. One error that a lot of presenters make is filling slides with too many words. Did you know that we use the same part of our brains to process spoken language and written language? That means if you show someone a slide containing more than a few words, they have to choose between reading and listening to you speak. We are physically incapable of doing both at the same time. 

So if you must use words on your slides, use very few. Don’t use them as a memory trigger for what you want to say – that’s what cue cards are for.

What’s more, the brain processes visual information 60,000 times quicker than words. Well-chosen, strong visuals can be the perfect accompaniment to the message you are communicating verbally. Find images, graphs or short video clips to help amplify points of your story. But no matter what, your slides should serve to enhance your presentation, not to distract from it. 

Build in time to rehearse your presentation more than once, either to yourself or in front of friends. Then when you have to perform for real, your brain doesn’t have to figure out the pace from scratch and you’re much less likely to run over or under time.

Work on the tone of your voice and make sure you don’t sound monotone. Think of your speech like a piece of jazz music: use plenty of inflection and add pauses for dramatic effect. And don’t feel like you have to talk constantly; allow for pauses so that your story and slides have time to breathe.

Be conscious of your ‘errs’ and ‘umms’ – it’s surprising how many people repeat these noises without realising, but you can be sure your listeners will be distracted if you do it too much.

You should also make sure to project your voice loudly and clearly. Even though you might have a microphone on the day, speak louder than you normally would – imagine you’re throwing your voice to the back of the audience, not the front, and you’ll naturally sound more confident. 

So many people’s minds go completely blank when they make first eye contact with the audience and you can overcome this by preparing a few prompts to get you going. If you’ve memorised your first 90 seconds and get it absolutely nailed, you should soon find your rhythm.

Often, the best presentations have been completely memorised, but if you don’t have time to learn your speech thoroughly, perhaps take bullet points on note cards. 

If you get nervous just before going up on stage, the best antidote is to breathe. Inhale deep breaths through your nose (breaths through the nose go deeper than breaths through the mouth) and slowly exhale. Before you make your entrance, there a few things you can do to prepare your voice. A good, loud yawn can help you find your tone and humming can help you to get more resonance. Also, perhaps in a quiet place, clasp your hands together, shake your shoulders and say ‘lalalala’ to loosen your mouth. It might sound silly but it’s recommended by public speaking trainers and it really does work!

Body language could account for as much as 55 per cent of the impact of face-to-face communication, so spend some time thinking about not just what you say, but how you say it. Stand with good posture and make use of your space. The audience will tend to mirror what they see, so look enthusiastic and make eye contact. Don’t go over the top with facial expressions, but do remember to use them; a smile or a raised eyebrow in the right place can add a lot. The same goes for hand gestures; use them, although not excessively. 

Remember, the audience likes you! As TED speaker, Gina Barnett says, “The audience — as big, scary and remote as they may seem — is totally on your side. They want you to have a good time up there, they want to hear your ideas, even if they don’t agree with them, and they want you to succeed.” 

For more tips on public speaking, see UBM’s Speaker Handbook ‘How to avoid death by PowerPoint’.

About Sarah OBeirne


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