Capturing Your Audience: (Part I)

Today’s audiences have very short attention spans. They are stimulation junkies with limited interest levels. Their television habits have coined a new term–channel surfing. With the advent of remote control no one watches anything that stands still enough to bore. Click, switch, fast forward, record and mute give them power over the medium. Sub-standard content, boring material or inane commercials are no longer endured. Your audience will forgive you of almost anything except being boring. This is especially true for association executives.

Since as professional speakers we perform live, this is the same frame of mind we confront when we stand before our audiences. We are no longer competing with yesterday’s general session speaker–we are now competing with the likes of Jay Leno, David Letterman and MTV. Developing a presentation that is stimulating, spirited and in motion is a necessity. That is why I suggest the following tools that will add “zing” to your material and presentation for your next association meeting.


There are basic principles of humor which can enliven your talk. Perhaps the most important one is to avoid telling generic “funny stories,” but rather find and build more humor within the context of your own stories. Jokes may get a laugh, but a humorous personal story pertinent to your talk will freshen up your anecdote and will be memorable for your audience. You can build rapport with your members by telling stories on yourself as they apply to your subject. Come up with an experience which was embarrassing for you if the point you are making can be tied into an awkward moment which caught you off guard and is humorous in the retelling. Study your material, discover a vignette which is relevant to a segment of your speech, insert it as a humorous example in your talk, and cap it with a punch line – this is the essence of comedy.

It is also fun to introduce an entertaining “character” to your story. Then, as you present the anecdote, learn to affect the role of that character on stage by shifting your position, changing your head movement or facial expression — amazingly the audience can “see” the story and appreciate it more. It takes practice – rehearsing in front of a mirror, trying new material out on friends, and discarding it when the story falls flat. But, when you put comedy into your material and make your audience laugh, you will keep their attention and add to their enjoyment.


Effective role playing and character portrayal depend heavily on the use of “body language”. On the platform it is an essential part of your message and can help you enhance the words you use to create pictures in the minds of your audiences. First, avoid repetitive use of the same movements or gestures. It’s a difficult exercise, but it’s important to practice a variety of movements and to control the same repeated gestures with your hands. Try practicing a speech by clasping your hands behind your back to avoid meaningless, repetitive arm and hand gestures. It will be tough at first to concentrate on your talk without using your hands, but it will help stop superficial flailing and gesturing. Remember, if you lose track of your gestures, it doesn’t mean your audience will. So learn to use gestures which you have complete control to avoid using them too often or too broadly.

The same applies to facial expressions and movement of your position on the platform. To emphasize a shift in your speech content, move to the left or right of the lectern. If you have a strong point to make, use that moment to take a step or two forward to emphasize that issue. Movement rehearsal is essential to ensure your gestures are relevant and not superficial or redundant. It is important not to overdo the same gestures or stand inert before your audience. Movement keeps your presence fresh. Even with top notch subject matter, superfluous or repetitive movements can be discordant, just as no gestures can render your presentation boring.


Humor and movement strengthen speeches . Your voice and the inflections of your speech are truly vital. The way you pronounce words can weaken your presentation. An example is saying “axchually” in place of “actually” or “perfekly” in place of “perfectly.”

Even if you have good diction and speak clearly and correctly, you have many natural enemies on the platform. Noisy air conditioning systems, faulty microphones, banquet staff clattering dishes, association members whispering and moving in and out of the room, all of these distract your audience. As an association executive your job is to make the best possible impression on your members. You need to sound intelligent, powerful, polished, articulate and confident. In today’s competitive market these qualities are not optional, they are essential. A technique for being more profound is to use short, simple declarative sentences and to cut out useless words. You can be more articulate if you make a special effort to pronounce the final sound in a word and use its energy to carry over to the following word. “Pay special attention to the final “t” and “ng.”


One of the most exciting elements of presentations I have learned is the art of not using my voice. Pausing at exactly the right moment in your speech is often more effective than anything you could do with your voice or body movements. A symphony orchestra becomes a lot more “listenable” because of the variety of sound–sometimes soft, sometimes loud, sometimes still. Learn to pause more often. As you know your material very well, you may have a tendency to talk too fast. Your audience may be hearing your information for the first time, so it is important to slow down and give them the opportunity to catch every word.

The faster you speak, the more you have to open up your material with pauses. If you do not, you limit your audience’s ability to absorb your stories and ideas. Using pauses and silences to punctuate your material will draw in your audience. After making a point or delivering a punch line, accentuate it by standing still and shifting only your eyes. The impact will be much greater. Another key element to the delivery of a speech is how you use your energy levels. Studies have proven that the first and last 30 seconds of a presentation make the most impact on the audience. Don’t be afraid to grab your audience. But develop pacing and variety in your delivery energy. If you come on with a gang-busters opening and then drop to a steady low energy level, your presentation will seem flat. If you stay high energy for the entire program, you may risk losing your believability. Adopt variety and pacing in your delivery and your audience will remain alert.