“Don’t be boring.” A couple of months ago, I coached a virtual classroom full of ten-year-olds on developing the speeches that every kid needs to create annually. I gave them just that one piece of advice in my 15-minute talk. Sure, I’ve got about 200 other ideas for them, but “don’t be boring” was the one that was going to have the greatest impact on their talks.
I’m giving you the same advice. You already know that disengagement levels are at all-time highs in virtual, hybrid and live events. In a world where TikTok reigns, audiences simply don’t have the interest or bandwidth to stick with you for your 60-minute state of the union address. In fact, they have a tough time paying attention for just 15 minutes.
It’s easy to decry the shrinking attention span as a symptom of a hyper fast culture, but come on…if you stood in front of me at a cocktail party and pummeled me with a 20-minute magnum opus of numbers, my eyes would glaze over, too.
Instead, your opportunity is to figure out how to use, and embed the right tools of engagement to keep your audience riveted, attentive, curious and ready for more. There are the obvious tools like storytelling and recognition, but my favorites are the less-used skills that you sprinkle throughout any talk—TED-level keynote, coffee shop pitch, bi-weekly numbers update or cocktail party chat.
1. Headlining: Bring high-value context in fewer words.
I create a lot of content every week, and my constant companion is the ability to create headlines that help you understand and navigate every blog post, infographic, presentation and email message. In fact, I did it right there at the top of this paragraph with a boldface description of “what” I was talking about, followed by context. If you just read that headline, you’d understand what I was trying to tell you and why it’s valuable to you. Great headlines don’t just describe “what,” they deliver “how” and “why.” They belong in your email subject headers, at the top of every PowerPoint slide, and whenever you’re guiding your audience through the segments of a presentation.
Do this: Place headlines at strategic places in your communications as a way to help someone scan your content.
2. Hyper empathy: Make everything about them.
People care more about what you’re saying when you make it as applicable as possible to them. We know this, but the idea often gets lost when you get on a roll about what you want to say to an audience. Stay on target—create stories where the audience can see themselves, use language from their industry or world, surface questions/objections/insights that are less about what you want to say and more about what they want to hear.
Do this: Use more personal pronouns to direct your content to your audience. “Saying ‘you’ instead of ‘audiences of people’ grabs your audience more effectively.
3. Process: Your presentation is the finishing school.
While you’re being empathetic, give your audience something of value—an insight, a resource or a process. I’ve given talks on presentations for more than a decade, but when I organized my thoughts into a 5-step approach to any talk, audiences really started to light up. In our busy world, we’re looking for any approach that helps us grow and get better. Why not include that approach in your talk?
Do this: Look at the content you want to deliver and ask, “how can I deliver this in a linear way that creates a process for success.”
4. Navigation: Teach your audience how to learn.
One of the best things I’ve added to my own keynotes over the last two years is a section called “Here’s how to get the most out of today’s presentation…” I deliver it after my opening story and explanation of the talk’s central point. In it, I commonly show a slide of thumbnails from one section in the presentation I’m about to give. What I’m doing is showing the audience what’s most important and how to follow the talk effectively. Skills here include listicle countdowns, callouts where I’ll say, “If you’re writing anything down today, this is what you want to pay attention to…” and a summary at the end of each section that reinforces key points. It eats up time, but it ensures my content is more memorable.
5. Co-creation: We activate what we generate.
I saw a talk recently that said the most successful pitches are the ones where the audience is invited into the conversation to improve the pitch. It’s a common sight in Hollywood film chats where your audience asks, “Have you ever considered…” That back-and-forth makes the audience invested in the outcome, which makes them listen harder and contribute more. You can do this, too. Call on audience members where you can. I interview possible attendees before a presentation to understand their questions and tailor your talk.
Do this: Soft interactivity is a simple, fantastic tool for virtual events. Ask your audience a question and get them to shout the answer back at you, just like an episode of “Dora the Explorer.” The simple act of shouting at the screen (make sure they’re muted first) gets them involved and invested.
Don’t be boring. Find as many ways as possible to engage your audiences throughout your presentation to keep them interested, accept your content and take the action you want.
Jason Thomson is an events content and creative director who coaches and trains on improving your presentations, content and communications. He’s helping leaders this summer in a new masterclass that delivers a five-step approach for every presentation.