Last week I spoke to a group of high school teachers who wanted to help their students give better presentations. When I talked about gaining the trust of the “security guard” in a listener’s brain, one teacher spoke up:
“You say the below-conscious brain is concerned with survival and needs to know if a situation is safe. What about interest? What about a class of teenagers on a Friday afternoon and the last thing they’re interested in is Shakespeare?”
I suspect that interest in a topic is largely a neo-cortex, conscious brain issue, not an emotional/instinctive, below-conscious brain question. I doubt if I would choose to hear a talk on recent developments in plumbing, even if the speaker were pleasant, engaging, and I felt at ease in his or her presence. It’s not my area of interest. Yet for someone who works in that field, innovations in plumbing would easily keep their focused attention. They are there because they are consciously interested.
That said, though, the teacher made an important point. While a speaker’s behaviour does have to gain the trust of the security guard for a person to be willing to listen, it’s not enough to make a good first impression and let it go at that. Once its safety is assured, I think the below-conscious brain wants other things, too. I think it wants ongoing engagement.
Active participation is always more engaging than passive listening. Questions are a wonderful way to keep your listeners engaged. I sometimes begin by asking my audience what they want to learn from this session. A “How-many-of-you…?” question enrols your listeners in your talk. For example, “How many of you are here because you want to get rid of public speaking fear?” I raise my hand to show that I’m expecting them to respond that way. Then I’ll ask, “How many of you don’t have a problem with fear, but just want to improve your skills?” Again I raise my hand. By asking two contrasting questions, I involve everybody in the room. They’ve all made a conscious decision to respond, followed by the physical action of raising their hand. They are now active participants.
Questions hook the mind, because the moment it hears a question, it seeks an answer, whether or not it will be required to give it. Frequent questions help your audience stay focused, so don’t hesitate to precede a statement with a rhetorical question or to frame statements in the form of questions. Questions that require participation, such as raising a hand or calling out an answer, engage your listener even more.
Remember ALWAYS to thank your audience for participation of any kind.
Sitting in a chair and just listening is mind-numbing, even when you’re interested in the topic. An audience needs to participate in some way every five minutes or so to stay engaged. In addition to questions you can include what’s called a “state change”. A state change is anything that creates a change from passive listening mode, thereby enlivening the energy of the audience. (Watch your listeners closely. One yawn should buy a state change for your whole audience.)
In addition to questions, here are a few state changes you can try. Not all of them will be appropriate for every situation, so tailor your choices to fit your audience.
- Ask people to repeat important words or an important point with you.
- Get the audience to finish your sentence, especially if it’s something you’ve repeated a couple of times. By now they know what the word is, and can supply it.
- Require agreement. “If you get that, say ‘aye’.”
- Stand up and stretch. (I love the place in my presentation where we do exercises to create good posture.) Do deep knee bends. Dance. Play air guitar.
- Do deep breathing.
- Have your listeners turn to the person beside them and…
- Share what they have just learned
- Say, “I didn’t know that”
- Shake hands and exchange business cards
- Give each other “high-fives”
By keeping your audience engaged and energized, you ensure that your information will be better received. Still, I’m glad I’m not the one who has to teach Shakespeare to teenagers on a Friday afternoon!