First impressions matter in any situation. Especially in public speaking, the opening line is the most important in determining the dynamic of your speech. But this isn’t always successfully executed. Your opener could flop, and you may find that it didn’t receive as great of an audience reaction as you had hoped.
“The biggest challenge for any public speaker is connecting with the people in the room. Audience-centered framing and confident delivery go a long way,” says Jesse Scinto (’12SPS, Strategic Communication), Fulbright U.S. Scholar and lecturer for the Programs in Strategic Communication at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.
Here are five tips to engage your audience successfully:
1. Choose Your Technique
Audience participation encompasses a broad range of activities—from a simple show of hands, to requests for brief personal input, to role playing and games, to small group exercises. Use one or more during your speech to help engage the audience.
2. Plan Ahead
Before asking for audience participation, think about the types of responses you might get. You want audience input to be meaningful and to help you make your point. Most importantly, think about what you’ll say if you don’t get the responses you expect.
3. Use Inclusive Framing
Ask your questions in such a way that most audience members would be able to respond. Don’t put people on the spot. Instead, make them feel competent to contribute. Inclusive questions are great for building a shared identity among the crowd.
4. Allow Time For Response
Be clear about whether your question is rhetorical or real. Audiences are often unsure, so it helps to start questions with phrases such as “Who here...?” or “Who in this room...?” to elicit real responses. Even if the question is rhetorical, still leave time for participants to consider the question and how they would answer. It can be just a brief pause, but it’s important to let them digest your point.
5. Acknowledge Contributions
Always recognize an audience member’s contribution before moving on to the next point or participant, even if it’s just to say “thank you.” As you become more comfortable with audience participation, you can frame the responses to fit your point and refer back to participants’ contributions later in your presentation.