Don’t Just Engage…Entertain!

You may feel you can successfully engage listeners with the critical substance of your message. But including an entertainment feature can add a whole new dimension to business meetings, to learning, to informing, to making the sale.

How many dull, dry, boring business meetings, workshops, seminars, conferences—you name it —have we all sat through? Most of them are reminiscent of college lectures: one-way streams of information flow with little interaction or participation on the part of the listener.

It’s possible, even preferable, to ramp up business communication styles so information flow becomes a dynamic, two-way stream, with your message effectively registering when listeners or audiences pay full attention. And it’s not that difficult a goal to accomplish.

Like anything worth doing, bettering communications requires commitment and practice, keeping in mind that practice makes progress. You may feel you can successfully engage listeners with the critical substance of your message and with your confidence in the way you approach communicating. But including an entertainment feature can add a whole new dimension to business meetings, to learning, to informing, to making the sale.

Just Do It

So how to go about not merely engaging, but also entertaining? It doesn’t necessarily require abilities such as stand-up comedy, singing, dancing, or magic, but those abilities won’t hurt, either. I’ve been a corporate and public-sector training consultant for several years, working primarily with senior and mid-level management. When I started out, I relied on my ability to construct worthwhile content and to speak intelligibly, but it wasn’t long before I felt something was lacking. I got good evaluations and repeat business, but was hoping for great evaluations and even greater word of mouth.

A positive tool for enhancing my style was the introduction of PowerPoint slides nearly 20 years ago. This enabled me to boost my public-speaking acumen by incorporating professional, eye-catching production aspects in my training. Over time, I even became proficient at using PowerPoint’s animation and transition features. I still find the tool indispensable, even though there’s an everyone-uses-it aspect. Because it’s ubiquitous, users can unwittingly interject a “PowerPoint poisoning” element that can cause information overload and an “already seen this” quality to business presentations. Though terrific, PowerPoint wasn’t enough.

Humor and Illusion

It was then I consulted a few of the HR training guides that have been available for some time on adding games and similar activities to workshops, and they did provide increased value. But after a while, they stagnated for me. And I think the culprit was that they represented someone else’s ideas rather than mine. I didn’t feel ownership of what I was doing. So I decided to add humor and entertainment to my presentations. I took a cue from celebrities such as John Cleese of Monty Python, or writers such as Calvin Trillin, who are stellar at anchoring significant ideas in humor.

For example, I often do a bit with audiences to liven up presentations. I’ll get an attendee aside out of sight of others at a break and ask him to give me his watch, letting him know he’ll get it back when I ask for a volunteer who’d like to make some money. When I ask for a volunteer, my “shill” gets a chance to grasp a $20 bill between thumb and forefinger once I let it go. Most people can’t do it, but I give the volunteer an advantage by holding the bill higher. Nearly everyone can grasp it then. Next, I hand him the $20 bill, clap my hands, and send him back to his seat. Invariably, the rest of the audience is amazed that I lost $20. But then I ask the volunteer what time it is. He looks at his wrist for the watch, which is in my pocket. I pull it out and say that I’ll sell it back for $20.

I usually get gasps of amazement and applause with this sleight-of-hand bit. And neither I nor my “shill” ever lets on!

Another easy bit anyone can do is to ask everyone in the audience to chip in a $1 bill. You tell them that whoever asks a question or is speaking at a certain time wins the whole pot. You hold up a sealed envelope with a slip of paper inside on which you’ve written a time, e.g., 11:15 a.m. At the end of the session, you announce who the winner is, taking care to note who was vocalizing at that time. If no one spoke precisely at 11:15, then the winner is whoever came closest. The point of the bit is to encourage interactive, two-way streams of discussion.

Additionally, I’ve used tricks with playing cards, or I’ve done “mind reading” with an attendee I’ve gotten aside ahead of time. Any of these resources and activities are available simply by Googling. But don’t be shy about putting your own spin on whatever you do.

The ultimate objective of going beyond engagement by adding entertainment to your repertoire is to lift the listeners’ experience out of the flat, tedious mire that too many communications devolve into.

So go ahead and give it a try, keeping in mind that, particularly on the job, no one will mind having a little fun.

Tom Stapleton is a trainer and freelance writer in Glendale, CA. He can be reached at