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Top Tips for Keeping Your Audience's Attention

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 24 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Speeches Attention Audience Start

At some time in our lives, most of us have had to sit through one of those interminably boring speeches where you can just feel your eyes glazing over and your head beginning to drop.

If you think that’s bad, just imagine how you’d feel if you were the speaker. There can surely be few things more mortifying than watching the spectacle of your audience fighting the urge to close their eyes and go to sleep – all you need now is to wait for the first snore and your humiliation will be complete!

But it needn’t be like this. The truth is, all speakers – even professional or naturally gifted ones – need to work at getting their listeners’ attention in the first place and then keeping it. The really good ones do it so effortlessly that you’ll probably never even notice, you’ll just stay riveted to what they have to say.

Fortunately for the rest of us mere mortals, there are one or two tricks we can use to keep our audience listening, rather than listless.

Engage Them From The Start

A good start is one of the most powerful weapons in any speaker’s armoury and if you get it right, you’ll have your audience hooked from the off.

Of course, a lot depends on the occasion and the subject matter of your speech, but posing an interesting question or coming out with a powerful – and possibly a little unexpected – statement, right at the beginning can often help grab your listeners’ attention. If you’ve managed to do that, you’re assured that they’ll at least try to stay with you long enough to find out where you’re going next.

OK so they’re listening; now all you’ve got to do is hang on to their interest.

Help Them To Like You

You know yourself, you tend to be more prepared to make the effort to listen to what someone has to say if you like them – so the trick is to make your audience like you. The obvious problem is, you haven’t exactly got a lot of time, but then on the other hand, you’re not asking them to be your friend for life – just to empathise with you long enough to hear you out.

It’s all about projecting what a thoroughly decent sort of person you are, so don’t lecture, don’t hector and don’t condescend – just seem likeable. You don’t have to dazzle them with your dental-work or grin insanely like the fabled Cheshire Cat – although a nice smile never goes amiss – just help them to feel that you’re enjoying being there, talking to such a wonderful group of people.

Bottom line – convince them that you like them, and they’ll like you. That’s how it works, it’s human nature and yes, as a species, we really are that superficial!

Pace And Timing

A droning delivery is the kiss of death to a speech, so when you’re practising yours at home, long before the event, try to hear any tendency to monotone or tedium that may start creeping in. Best of all, press-gang your nearest and dearest, colleagues or friends into listening to you – and then be open to what they say; a pound to a penny they’ll spot any weaknesses in pace or tone, so try to see that any criticism is constructively meant – well, at least mostly!

Get the intonation and the speed of delivery right – and don’t be afraid to vary things a bit – and you can bring even the dullest subject matter alive. Most of all, never underestimate the power of a pause for dramatic effect. Winston Churchill was probably the world’s greatest exponent of that particular trick – if you can learn do it even a tenth as well, you’ll never lose your audience; not ever!

Use Props

Props don’t work for everyone – and they’re not always appropriate – but they’re definitely something worth considering if you want to guarantee your audience stays attentive.

Of course there are some kinds of speeches that might have you struggling to find a suitable prop to use – but actually even that needn’t be a problem. One very well respected speaker who made quite a name for himself regaling audiences with real-life tales of forensic pathology, long before 'Waking The Dead' or 'CSI' hit our screens, had a brilliant way round it. He simply brought a wicker basket along to his engagements and set it down beside him. Everyone hung on every word of his fascinating delivery – terrified to miss the moment when whatever lay within would be revealed in all its gruesome glory.

Come the end of his speech, he revealed it alright – the basket was empty! Everyone had been 'had', but by then it didn’t matter; they’d listened to every syllable he’d uttered – and that was the whole point.

Clearly, it’s the sort of trick that you can only use once on any group, but it’s certainly an effective one.

In the end, keeping your audience’s attention really boils down to being interesting, personable and audible – and remember, if you kicked off by posing a question, do make sure you answer it by the end. They’ve listened to you this far; you owe them that at least!

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