7 Secrets to Engaging an Audience

Effective communication is not possible without engagement.

By G. Riley Mills, co-founder and COO, Pinnacle Performance Company
Engaging today’s business audiences can be tough. Consider that the average worker’s attention span lasts only about three minutesbefore they feel the impulse to set aside whatever they are doing and begin a new activity, according to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine. If you manage to engage past that threshold, an Indiana University study revealed that the average adult listens effectively for only about 15 to 20 minutes before their mind begins to wander. It should come as no surprise then that 91 percent of business professionals admitted to daydreaming during the meetings they attend and 39 percent confessed to falling asleep, according to a “Meetings in America” study conducted by MCI.

Here’s the kicker: For trainers and presenters, or anyone communicating a message to others, the burden of engagement always lies with the speaker. It is not your audience’s job to be engaged or be persuaded; it is it up to you to persuade them. So, with that in mind, here are seven surefire ways to capture (and keep) an audience’s attention:

  1. Define your objective (and choose an intention). You should always have a goal with your communication—something you want from your audience. Once you have an objective, you must pair it with an intention (a one-word verb) that will color your delivery and help you reach that goal. Once you identify the appropriate intention (i.e., to excite, persuade, or engage), your voice, gestures, and body language then must support it. You should be able to complete the following sentence with any message you deliver: “I want to __________ my audience, so my audience will ___________________.” (For example, a trainer may want to empower their team members with new procedures so they can be more efficient and productive at their job.)
  2. Create a pattern interrupt. Since most meetings or presentations last longer than 15 to 20 minutes, it is important during those meetings or presentations to change things up frequently by creating what is called a pattern interrupt. Examples of pattern interrupts include asking questions, incorporating physical activity, changing speakers, or even breaking the group into pairs or smaller groups. By using a pattern interrupt, you keep your audience actively involved and buy yourself more time for fuller engagement.
  3. Make it a dialogue (not a monologue). Try to make the delivery of your message an interactive experience with an audience instead of a one-way communication (with you doing all of the talking). Think of every training or presentation as an interactive experience, as much as possible: Solicit feedback frequently, ask questions throughout, and check in at various intervals to confirm understanding to ensure your points are being understood.
  4. Highlight the benefit. “What’s in it for me?” This is what every audience is thinking at the start of your training or presentation. Audiences always will be looking for a tangible benefit you can provide to them with the message you are delivering, so don’t be shy about stating concrete and specific details about how your program or plan could have a positive effect on productivity or the bottom line. How will it save them time, save them money, or make their job or life easier? Clearly and equivocally spell out the benefit you are providing for those giving you their time and attention.
  5. Create a hook from the start. As Lyndon Johnson once said about audiences, “If they’re with you at the takeoff, they’ll be with you in the landing.” Therefore, find a way to capture your audience’s attention in the first 30 seconds with a provocative statement, a thought-provoking question, or a relevant anecdote that sets up the topic or material you are planning to discuss. It also can be helpful to utilize a “teaser,” such as asking a question you don’t answer right away or “teasing” a topic that will be detailed later in your presentation. Withholding certain facts or information will build suspense with your audience and will keep them with you from start to finish.
  6. Pause for effect. We think at a much faster rate than our optimal speaking rate, so it is important to consciously slow down your pace when speaking to an audience. This is something that is not always easy to do when the adrenaline starts to flow. It takes concentration and focus, but make sure you slow down your speaking pace so your words have a greater impact for your audience. Remember, in most cases, they are hearing this information for the first time, so they need to hear and consider what you are saying. As a trainer or presenter, don’t be afraid of silence. Pause at specific points to let the information you are providing sink in with your audience.
  7. Be concise. According to the National Statistics Council, people in the modern-day business environment spend an average of 37 percent of their workweek in meetings and presentations. We are all busy with jam-packed schedules and heavy workloads. Because of this, make sure your message is quick and to the point. Stick to your agenda and finish within the allotted time you have been given for the specific training or presentation. The benefits of this are twofold: Not only does being concise signal to your client or boss that you respect their time and intelligence, it also helps an audience more easily retain your most important points without getting bogged down by extraneous details.

As anyone tasked with delivering a message to others knows, you need to penetrate your audience to make an impact on them. While facilitating a meeting, delivering feedback, or leading a training session, without engagement—meaning your audience is in a willing state of attentiveness—effective communication is not possible. It doesn’t matter who you are or what topic you are discussing, if the arrow that is your message does not hit its intended target, you will have fallen short of the mark as a communicator. So don’t rely on your data or visual aids alone to engage an audience. And while the words and information are an important piece of the engagement puzzle, by incorporating these seven tips and techniques into your delivery, you will be well on your way to capturing your audience’s attention and changing the way they think or behave.

G. Riley Mills is the co-founder and COO of Pinnacle Performance Company and co-author of The Pin Drop Principle. He has taught effective communication to executives and CEOs across the globe and guest lectured or delivered keynote addresses to several corporate universities, learning institutions, and professional training and development associations.


Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.