Skilled speakers have developed what appear as intuitive responses to the drifting attention span that can happen when you are face-to-face with a small group or a big audience. While some of these turnaround efforts may truly be intuitive, most are learned behaviors, usually from painful experiences.

I’ve identified four proven tactics you can begin to practice right away so you’ll look and sound in control, too.

  1. Pose questions and elicit answers
  2. Make use of opening techniques throughout your message, not just for the opening!
  3. Match content to images that provoke responses
  4. Include good “cocktail conversation” items to maintain interest

Today, we will take a deep dive into the first two techniques. Next week, I’ll share the others.


Attention-Keeping Tactic 1: Ask an Open-Ended Questions

At regular intervals in your speech, throw out a question not answerable by a simple “yes” or “no”—and seek out responses from your audience. This tactic is often in play among experienced speakers. You not only stimulate interest by converting what could be viewed as a lecture into a group discussion, but you also create the element of surprise and a sense of anticipation, which most people truly enjoy. No one knows in advance what will be said by the nonexpert members of the group. And will you, as the speaker, agree, disagree, praise, or criticize the response?

The value of posing questions to your audience is immense in terms of promoting audience involvement and appreciation.


At regular intervals in your speech, throw out a question not answerable by a simple “yes” or “no”—and seek out responses from your audience.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions You Can Pose

Depending on who’s in your audience, you have a variety of possibilities of questions to trot out and re-energize your speaking situation. Here are some:

  • “Have you ever had a similar experience? Tell us about it.” 
  • “Why do you think this kind of practice could work or might not?” 
  • “If you were writing the legislation, what would you want to see included?”
  • “What was the best place you ever traveled and why?” 
  • “When is the best time to exercise for you, and what do you do to stay in shape?”
  • “What would you say was the biggest challenge you had starting your business?”
  • “As a parent, what has been the most rewarding aspect of raising your children?”
  • “What gets in your way when you’re trying to lose weight?”
  • “What was your biggest ‘aha moment’ in the last few weeks?”


Potential Downside of Asking Questions

Given that most people like to keep talking once they get cranked up, you risk losing control of the speaking situation when you ask a question and encourage audience members to answer it. Several other awful things can also happen:

  • The person can say something truly inappropriate, off-color, racially biased, or worse.
  • Your facts, position, or credentials can be challenged in a less-than-friendly way, even to the point of someone trying to trash your message and you.
  • You thank the person for responding and try to move on, but the individual refuses to stop talking or to return the microphone to you.

To prevent some of these occurrences, especially in a large crowd setting, always insist on two microphones. One is for you, and one can be available to the audience, whether portable or in a fixed location. That way, you can override the unwelcome participation, if needed.

Try to set some ground rules right after you pose the question. Request that the responses be as brief as possible to give time for others to participate as well. Be sure and acknowledge each respondent before taking the next answer, even if it’s an extremely brief thank-you.

Despite the potential for loss of control, I find this question-asking technique works beautifully most of the time. It can really help your presentation stay on track attention-wise and to be well received.


Attention-Keeping Tactic 2:  Why You Need More than One Opening for Your Presentation


One of the best ways to boost listening levels throughout your presentation is to treat your main points and subpoints as if each were the original opening of your message. In a previous blog entry we shared the six most popular ways to open a speech or presentation.

Here they are again:

  1. Tell a Story, the speaker’s equivalent of “Once Upon a Time” 
  2. Arouse Suspense, get them to wonder where you’re going 
  3. Startle with a newsworthy fact
  4. Promise to give them something 
  5. Ask for a show of hands
  6. Use an object or exhibit

A story or personal anecdote you considered using to open the presentation, but that just didn’t have the right punch, could be just the best way to launch a main point or subpoint.

You sensed that asking the audience for a show of hands to answer a particular question would not be well received in the opening of your speech. But, later in the message, that question and getting the audience to raise their hands in response could be just the right strategy to revitalize the crowd and re-engage them with your message.

“And now that we’ve been talking about the role of chocolate in our lives for a little while, by a show of hands, who believes that chocolate can provide health benefits as well as satisfy our sweet tooth?”

Similarly, you have a clever prop or a remarkable graph that you know will get the group to react, but it only pertained to one of the points you planned to present so it was wrong for the opening of your presentation. That commanding visual element, placed in the right slot, is another ideal way to reinvigorate those attending.


Applying Openings to Pump Up Your Message

Say you’re introducing a main point about changing a longtime procedure in your organization. A typical, unimaginative approach might be: “The next aspect of the transition we need to go over is how this change will impact the support staff.”

Instead, you might want to try out the “promise to give them something” opening and “the startling fact” technique, to see how you can energize the beginning of this important point.

(Promise.) “By the time we’ve finished showing you what this transition will mean to our support staff operations, you’re going to see how much faster and more secure both routine and special project data storage will be, with no increase in anyone’s workload.”

(Fact.) “The largest, fastest-growing counties in our state have already adopted the new case management that we’re about to discuss, and they report a 75 percent satisfaction rate once it’s installed and working up to potential.”


Next Week

In next week’s blog you’ll find the other two proven tactics for regaining your audience’s attention if it starts to fade. If you found this blog helpful, we invite you to check out a free preview of our new eCourse Speak Your Way To The Top.