Is Your Audience With You?

The other day I was five minutes into my introduction as a facilitator of a workshop, and I stopped to ask the question,

“What are you thinking about right now?”

The results were surprising. Of the 18 people in the room, three were thinking about what I was saying. The rest were distracted by thoughts they had brought into the room:

  • One was concerned she hadn’t fed her child enough before school.
  • One was thinking that he could have stayed in bed longer rather than arriving in time for networking coffee.
  • Another was worrying whether she could complete everything she’d left on her desk to attend the workshop.
  • Another was thinking about the weekend (it was Friday).

With 15 out of 18 people distracted in the introduction, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m a lousy presenter. Yet, I’ve been told I’m an engaging speaker, and I usually score full marks on engagement in feedback surveys.

So, what else was at play?

According to Susan Weinchenk who wrote the book, 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, the attention span of someone who is interested in a topic is 7 to 10 minutes, and if they are not interested, it can be 7 seconds.

That’s why it is essential to create engagement from the beginning, and every few minutes with breaks, interruptions, sharing techniques, questions and stories.

Why are people needing engagement right at the start of a session?

Participants spend time at the start of any group session evaluating whether they have made the right choice to be present. They evaluate the speaker or presenter and assess whether the content looks like it will meet their needs. It is right at the beginning that you need to allay their fears that their time will be wasted, and the best way to do that is to engage them in a way that they feel responsible for their own outcomes.

In more than 30 years of facilitating workshops, meetings and conferences, I have found that until people have spoken and engaged in a conference setting, they are not with you. If you don’t win them over early, you land up having to work much harder to reach the desired outcomes. Whether you are pitching, presenting, chairing or facilitating any session, the same principles apply.

Your challenge is to move the attention of those in the room from the rush of thoughts they arrived with, to whatever is happening in the room.

You need them to focus on ‘What’s in it for me, right here, right now’. They’re not being selfish; it’s a legitimate need. People spend their time min-maxing, working out what is the minimum they can do to maximise their benefits.

Time is limited, and we can’t get it back, so it is the role of the person at the front of the room to ensure that each person’s time is well spent. 

My three steps for engagement:

1. Get them up and moving.

Ask them to find someone in the room they haven’t met before. Ask them to introduce themselves to one another and say why they are here. This takes just five minutes but is a great investment in the engagement of the group and their trust in you as the person at the front of the room.

I’ve done this in groups of eight, and I’ve done it in audiences of 400. It works to connect people to the hear and now, and to move them away from being individuals to part of the collective outcomes of the event.

2. Ask them to document their goal.

If they write down their goal for the meeting, workshop or conference they take responsibility to reach it. As the person in front, you can refer to the fact that they have a goal regularly, to encourage them to reach that goal.

3. Let them know your intention.

State clearly that your goal is that when they walk out of the room, they glance back inside and say, “That was seriously worthwhile time spent.” Tell them the one thing they can’t get back, is time, so it is a joint responsibility to ensure that everyone in the room has spent their time well.

Don’t kid yourself that those polite faces in your audience are actually listening; everyone knows how to put on the ‘listening look’.

Do something about getting people actively engaged early on. It will make your job easier, and their time spent worthwhile.

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