“I don’t know the key to success,” Bill Cosby said, “but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
In like manner, I’d say I don’t know one key to success as a presenter — I can think of many — but I’m sure of this: The key to failure is to bore people.
When you bore people — whether you’re speaking to one other person or to a full auditorium — they’ll shut down. They will disengage. They will turn their attention elsewhere. They will stop caring, if they ever did in the first place. As a result, they will NOT do what you want them to. If you bore them badly enough, they will actively resist doing what you want them to.
To avoid boring people:
- Be clear.
The easiest way to bore people is to confuse them. Explain your ideas and your terms so your audience immediately (or almost immediately) understands what you’re talking about. Break your concepts down into parts (either elements of a whole or steps in a procedure) and work through them in a logical way.
- Be relevant.
Show your audience how your ideas affect them. People are already overwhelmed with too much information and with too many responsibilities. Their first line of defense is to disregard anything that doesn’t directly affect them. (Think of how you sort through your email every day. Do you read everything? Or do you trash items, whether they’re spam or not, that don’t have some direct effect on your life?)
- Be brief.
Studies show that people’s attention tends to drift after ten minutes. So you have two options. First, get in and out quickly. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a short — 10-minutes-or-less — presentation. Speak for 7 or 8 minutes and take questions for a couple of minutes. Or second, break your longer presentation into 10-minute chunks.
- Be interested.
Your enthusiasm — or lack of it — can be contagious. I’ve been fascinated by issues that I had no prior interest in simply because the speaker was so fascinated by them. I was, for example, enthralled by a talk by a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns who was talking about bats. She didn’t inspire me to go out and learn more about bats, mind you, but she did give me a new appreciation for them.
- Be physical.
People have the physical capacity to remain engaged only for so long and under certain conditions. If they are jet lagged, if they have already endured three 10-hour days of training or of meetings, if are hungry or tired or struggling with the 2 PM blues, if they were bored to tears by the presenter who preceded you, give them a break. You can’t engage their minds when their bodies have thrown in the towel. Do something — postpone or reschedule your talk, provide a rest break or a snack, or have them stand up and stretch — to get people’s bodies reengaged.
What are your strategies or techniques for keeping people engaged? What do you do if you find that your audience’s attention is drifting?