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Presentation Skills: Body Language; Keep Your Audience's Attention

What to Do When You're Losing Your Audience

How do you know when you're losing your audience? What should you do when that happens?

Know the warning signs.
A mistake presenters often make is to get so caught up in their presentation that they drone on, unaware that people are tuning them out. Usually, the warning signs are easy enough to spot, conveyed mostly through body language. Are people focusing on you, sitting still and upright in their seats, perhaps taking notes? Or are they fidgeting, shifting and squirming, checking their watches and making a mental note of the exit signs?

The signals can be obvious or subtle. Either way, failing to react quickly can sink your presentation. Speakers who fail to make adjustments tend to get flustered, conveying impatience and shifting blame to the audience for its inattention—in turn, only making matters worse.

Prepare before you speak.
Your chances of holding your audience are rooted in how well you prepare in the first place. Your success is rooted also in how well you rehearse your presentation, on how focused you are on your objectives and key messages—in short, on how well you use all the tools of an effective presenter.

Pay attention especially to a strong opener—one that grabs your audience from the start. Plan your opening words carefully. Avoid the hackneyed. Go instead for a bold opener that 's likely to get attention. The best of these tie directly to your topic and lead seamlessly into your remarks. Strong openers also create a framework setting up your listeners for what they're about to hear and why they should care.

Use the right body language to connect with your listeners—and hold their attention.
Nonverbal communication—your body language—plays a big role, especially in tough situations. (See our article, While You're Talking, What Is Your Body Saying?, on nonverbal communication, in our Spring 2003 issue.)

There's always the risk that at least some of your listeners will give you less than their full attention. You can counter this by making an immediate connection with your audience. Here, strong eye focus is key in building a relationship with your listeners. It's step one in initiating in-person communication, in establishing a connection with others. And it keeps your listeners focused on you—a huge plus when your listeners may be prone to tuning you out.

Use your voice as another means of both projecting and keeping control. There are exercises that can increase the impact your voice has on your listeners. You can learn also how to vary the pace, loudness and pitch of your voice. Warm up your voice with these exercises before presenting.

In short, think of body language as part of your presenter's toolkit. Stance, gestures, facial expression—all are part of the package. The right stance conveys authority and confidence. The right gestures add animation, helping to relax you while also adding emphasis to your remarks. The right facial expression can further engage your listeners. Your facial expression should look natural, as if you were in conversation with one or several individuals. Again, your body language becomes even more important when you need to re-focus listeners whose thoughts may be elsewhere.

Break out of the pattern you're in.
Pause for a few seconds. That will get your listeners to look at you and wonder why you stopped and what you're going to say next.

If you're using a lectern, walk away, take a few steps, then return.

If the situation allows, ask for feedback on something you've just said. Some in your audience may have information, opinions or experiences of their own they'd be willing to share. Turn the tables and get your listeners involved. Throw questions out at them now and then.

If your presentation is a lengthy one, or if you're speaking at the tail end of a long program, invite your listeners to stand for a "seventh-inning stretch." They'll appreciate the gesture and it'll help rouse the non-listeners from their slumber.

Even if you sense that only one or two of your listeners are tuning out, it's still a good idea to selectively use some of these devices at appropriate moments in your presentation. At the very least, it'll help everyone pay closer attention.

This Issue

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