Horshack Enthusiasm: Keeping Your Audience Engaged


 While ‘Mr. Kotter’ (Generation Y – please Google) had a few flaws as a teacher (like making fun of his wife’s tuna casserole), one thing he did really well was engaging his ‘Sweat Hogs’ (students) and maintaining their attention – even with the disengaged ‘back rowers’ like Arnold.

Keeping your audience focused on your presentation isn’t easy. If your story isn’t compelling, if your speech is boring, confusing, or even predictable, it’s easy for your audience to lose focus. Just like in the movies, the audience is seated and watching the screen, but their minds will drift and lose focus faster than Homer Simpson if they are not interested with what’s going on.

“Anyone who is still listening to me, please raise your hand.”

Here are some techniques that you can use in future presentations to keep your audience engaged and help increase your chances of being “welcomed back” (pun intended).

“Change Grabs Attention”

This quote comes from Daniel Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ We notice change. You notice the hum of the air-conditioner when it comes on and when it goes off – but not in between. You can use this human propensity to your advantage to help engage and keep the attention of your audience:

  • Change the visual medium: from slides to flipchart, and back again.
  • If you are sitting – stand; if you are standing – walk through the classroom, right up to Arnold’s desk in the back row.
  • Change the activity your audience is engaged in: from listening to you – to small group breakout sessions – to showing a short video – back to lecturing – to playing a creative learning game: ‘50 Shades of Selling’ is one of my favorites!

As a guide, change it up at least every 10 minutes.

 Tell Great Stories

There’s strong evidence that people are hard-wired to listen to stories.  When you say “ I’ll tell you a story about…” your audience will perk up. Now you may be telling yourself, “I already tell stories in my presentations”, but a better approach is to ask yourself “just how great am I at telling stories?”

Here are some suggestions for using stories in your presentation:

  • Your stories should tie into the subject matter at hand, and reinforce the point you’re making.
  • Sprinkle your stories throughout your presentation for best effect.
  • When preparing for a presentation, facilitators spend 64% of their time focusing on what they are going to present, and only 36% of their time on how they are going to present (those umbers should be reversed). Practice your storytelling, and keep your stories to less than two minutes.
  • A great book on storytelling is Doug Stevenson’s ‘Power of Story to Engage, Inspire and Produce Results’. If you know of any good books or links about storytelling, please post them in the comments section.

 Use Appropriate Humor

Making people smile or laugh puts them at ease and creates a better engaging environment. If they agree with your humor, they are more likely to agree with what you are presenting. Follow these tried and proven techniques when using humor:

  • Keep your humor clean – real clean. If in doubt, leave it out. Your humor should never be at the expense of others. Period.
  • Use humor, NOT jokes. Joke telling usually is not very funny and is bound to offend someone. Joke telling sounds contrived and often sounds unprofessional. And worst of all, if your audience heard the joke before, you look like a total idiot, especially when no one in the room is laughing (except you).
  • Have a point. I have seen too many presenters start their presentations with a funny story, receive a good laugh, and then leave the audience wondering what the purpose the story was. Remember that your goal is not to be the next Jay Leno, but to increase the impact of your message. Link your funny story to a point. Here’s an example of humor (true story) I use in my advanced selling skills workshop that usually yields a big laugh from my audience:

“The great thing about possessing great selling skills is that they are usually transferrable from one industry to another. A sales colleague of mine in the pharmaceutical industry was recently laid off. In less than six months however, he found an even better paying job selling industrial batteries. While having lunch with him last week, I asked him how he liked his new job selling industrial batteries. He said it wasn’t bad – some days were positive, other days were negative!” (Badda Bing!!)

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