Engage your audience

It turns out that it’s really hard to get any writing done while you’re on vacation in a foreign country.  There’s always something interesting to see, a great meal to eat, a stomach ailment to acquire.  Now that I’m home for the foreseeable future I should be posting much more regularly.

And traveling wasn’t a complete waste of time work-wise.  One thing that I always try to emphasize to people is that presenting is about more than surviving your talk or just distributing information. Unless you change your audience’s mind about your topic or, even better, get them to actually do something, you’re not really accomplishing anything.  You’re just wasting everyone’s time– including your own.

I spent a great afternoon in Toledo, Spain, a couple of weeks ago and saw some street performers using what seemed to be a really promising persuasive technique.  But at first I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see them.  I actually hoped they’d just go away, which is probably how a lot of audiences feel.

There was a guy in ratty mime-like costume practicing rolling a bowler hat down his back and onto his head (and missing more often then not) and a woman in a half-baked flamenco costume.  They set up an underpowered PA system in heavily touristed Plaza de Zocodover that made it impossible for me to understand them with my limited Spanish.  It just didn’t seem promising– I expected them to interrupt asking for spare change while I was enjoying my beer.

But I was really impressed with their strategy once they go started.  They’d single out someone of the crowd and involve them in their act for a minute:  Do a simple magic trick;  crack a joke with them; play with their kids.  But it turns out that they weren’t just street performers asking for change.  After each bit of audience participation someone else would approach the audience member and hand them a flyer for a UN program that works against child poverty.  Interacting with the crowd forced the audience to acknowledge that something was actually happening and the cause the performers were promoting couldn’t just be ignored in favor of our beer.

I don’t know how much money they collected that day, but I bet they were much more effective than they would have been if they had just handed out fliers or made a speech.  I thought of them again later in the week while observing street musicians who just stood and didn’t interact with crowds who were eating or having a bottle of wine (me again) in the Plaza of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona.  Every fifteen minutes or so a new performer would show up, play two or three songs and pass around a collection without much enthusiasm from the audience or the performer.  They surely would have received bigger tips if they had interacted with the audience– serenaded a specific couple, taken requests– than they did by just playing the nine-millionth version of “Lady of Spain” and moving on to the next plaza on the minstrel tour.

Guess what?  The same is true of any talk you give.  Far too many presenters are so afraid of public speaking that they do everything they can to avoid even acknowledging the presence of their audience, which is unfortunate since engaging them directly is absolutely one of the best things you can do in order to be successful. The more you can involve your audience, the more you can engage them and make them feel like they’re a part of your presentation and your agenda, the more persuasive you’re going to be.

That doesn’t mean you have to do magic tricks or play an accordian, but there are all kind of things that you can do to draw in an audience.  Learn the names of your audience if it’s at all practically and address them directly.  Talk about something you all have in common in order to build rapport.  Get them involved in a group activity or find a way to get them moving around and doing something rather than just sitting passively in their seats. Just making them laugh can work wonders. And heck, if you can play the accordian, why not give it a try?

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