The best tool to engage an audience
Our goal when communicating with an audience is to engage them so that we get our message across successfully. And this engagement needs to happen pretty much straight away at the start, or they’ll drift, and we may not get them back again (smartphones are always beckoning). So what’s our best tool to engage an audience?
Hopefully I did that with the title of this blog post! If you’re reading this now, there’s a good chance that curiosity was what got you over the line to click the title and read more.
How can we create curiosity? Particularly as we open our talk, when it’s so crucial?
Questions. The easiest and most common way is to ask a question. A question is an open loop: and our brains like to close an open loop. So even if you don’t like my question, your brain is still going to answer it. (Think about that for a moment – test it out if you like). Try and ask your audience something which is going to intrigue them, and make them want to hear more. To give you an example: I recently worked with a client who moved out of a career as an astrophysicist into a new field. She started her talk by asking her audience:
“What was the single, persistent thought that moved me from working in a field you could call the ultimate abstraction – astrophysics – into medicine?” (*see answer below!)
Statement. You can also simply frame your topic in a way which you know will interest your audience – without asking a question. Let’s take the same example above and reframe it as a statement:
“So it’s 2002 and I’m sitting in my research lab, studying quasars, as I do most days – and this single, persistent thought keeps troubling me…”
Other ways to create curiosity in your audience:
Short video or great image. This can really get us interested. Just make sure it’s relevant (yes, I have seen speakers pop in something unrelated as an attention grabber: I’m not a fan).
Refute a common premise. Set up a premise, an idea, and then systematically refute it. You can be explicit: “The 4 myths of tooth decay” or subtle by lulling us first: “The 4 things we know about tooth decay”; then you go on to demolish each one of them.
Curiosity is a particularly good tool if you have a challenging or potentially dull topic, that’s going to need some focused attention by your audience. (And by challenging, I don’t mean announcing workforce layoffs, for example – using curiosity there would be disastrous!)
The flip side. And the flip side of creating curiosity in our audience? We need to make sure that we’re curious about our own message (especially if it’s something we trot out on a regular basis). Where can we refresh or tweak our ideas? How can we stay engaged with our own content?
And finally: we need to be curious about our audience’s reactions to our message. This can take guts, and preparation – and is hard to do if you’re a nervous speaker. There’s a big payoff in audience engagement throughout your talk if you can move towards this idea: and start to learn to bounce off the audience.
Here are two examples of TED talks, where curiosity via questions is well used. Worth noting too that the two speakers have very different styles.
(*astrophysicist’s reason for moving into the field of medicine: that she wanted to make a meaningful difference to individuals)