How to Reel in a Wandering Audience

By Heather Baldwin

You’re losing them. You look out at the audience and see individuals crossing their legs, looking around, fidgeting and flipping through papers – everything but sitting with rapt attention. Can you lure them back? Absolutely, says Richard Bierck, author of “Are You Listening to Me?” an essay from Presentations that Persuade and Motivate (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). He suggests these strategies for getting an audience to tune back in.

Pause for effect. A sudden pause or change in vocal tone can awaken a sleeping audience. But if you use the pause you must follow it with something important or insightful, so have something ready.

Ask a question. When you suspect people have checked out mentally from your presentation, ask a question. Even if you don’t have one prepared for that moment, just turn your next thought into a question. For example, instead of reeling off a list of features about your photocopiers, ask the audience what features are most important to them. But don’t blindside them. Give audience members a chance to hear the question by prefacing it with something such as: So I’m going to ask you a question….

Get audience members involved. Bring them into the presentation as a group. For example, ask for a show of hands on a practice or opinion. This will rouse the laggards and the votes will give you a springboard to further discussions and questions. Again, give audience members some warning that the question is coming by letting them know you’re going to ask for a show of hands.

Build one-on-one rapport. Identify an attentive member of the audience and develop a nonverbal rapport with him or her. When you notice someone who is not listening and you’re able to recapture his or her attention, develop this same rapport with the new person.

Give members a listening test. When you sense your audience isn’t tuned in but you’re about to make some key points, try saying something such as: Let me go on for a couple minutes and then I’m going to ask you some questions, says Bierck. Not only will they tune right in, they’ll be prepared for your questions.