Imagine you’re delivering a 30-minute presentation—maybe you’re on a stage in front of 500 people, in a conference room in front of five leaders, or with 20 people in a video call. While presenting, your audience looks confused. Some of them tilt their heads trying to understand. Others whisper to the person next to them, while a few check their phones.
You think to yourself: “This isn’t resonating. This isn’t persuading. I’m losing them.” You’ve put more than 10 hours into crafting this presentation, designing great slides, and rehearsing with colleagues. It should work, but it doesn’t.
What's Your Next Move?You could continue as planned. Your message looks great on paper and worked well in trial runs. Maybe you’ll get your audience back before the end. If you choose to push forward, you might find success. The people who are still focused might be fulfilled, and even if that’s 10 percent of the audience, that’s maybe enough.
Or, you could turn off your slides, toss your speech notes into your bag, and walk out of the room. You might save everyone’s time and hope to try another speech another day (if you’re invited back).
Most of us would choose the first option, powering through the presentation in its original form, instead of giving up altogether. But, there’s a third option to consider: you could turn off your slides, toss your speech notes, and start a conversation with your audience.
But stopping your own presentation to take questions on the spot and ask questions of your audience is a deliberate and proactive strategy that can help rescue a failing presentation by re-engaging the audience.
Award-winning presenter Bridgett McGowen shares persuasive reasons for using this strategy in her book Real Talk. She advises, “Get listeners immediately talking, writing, and/or moving so they know your voice, ideas, and actions are not the only valid ones in the room. Audience members learn more, lean in more, and are better inclined to act as you want them to act if the ideas appear to come from them.”
She writes that taking questions in the middle of a presentation “makes the presentation more of a conversation, and it’s an audience-centric strategy.”
Note that this does not mean responding to interruptions like a sudden question or request for clarification from an audience member before returning to your presentation—there are a variety of other great resources for that. Learn how to handle interruptions and uninvited questions with ease by checking out the article “The Art of Heckling.” And become a pro at approaching difficult questions here: “Q&A Quandaries: Dealing With Difficult Questions.”
Have access to LinkedIn Learning? Chris Croft’s advice on asking the audience for interaction is also great! Here’s his five-minute lesson about asking the audience questions: “Master Confident Presentations: Audience Interaction.”
Reading the AudienceLet’s consider a couple of examples.
Richard Mulholland, founder of the presentation firm Missing Link, calls the dialogue-instead-of-delivery strategy “be prepared to under present.” He shares:
I saw a speaker once go far too long, way over his slot. Everyone wanted to leave but he just kept going. After he eventually finished the moderator said (as people were getting up to leave) that there was still one more speaker. Everyone reluctantly sat down. The new presenter, Evan, got on stage, took one look at the audience, and said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I was given 15 minutes today to talk to you about the work we are doing at Epic Magazine, but the truth is that talk is cheap. I don't need 15 minutes; I have the magazine for all of you; and I'll meet you at the back door, give you a copy, and answer any questions you have. Now, you should probably get back to work, eh?’ There was a moment of silence and then OVATION.
Richard’s example shows the importance of reading the room and knowing when your plans might not fit the audience’s needs.
Another way to learn how to read an audience is to study how stand-up comedians do crowd work. For example, the comic Jeff Arcuri’s entire gimmick is audience conversation. His style of interaction replaces a rehearsed set altogether, which could be a daunting task in a business environment. Imagine you’re ready to present to a client about software solutions, and the purchasing officer says, “I’m looking forward to today’s presentation about hardware options.” But, after clarifying last-minute expectations, you realize that focusing on the requested topic will best serve the client. Your planned content becomes obsolete.
Although throwing the script out the window may seem risky, engaging with your audience is sometimes the best way to go.
There are two more blog posts about this topic coming your way. Stay tuned for my next posts about the seven strategies for turning speeches into dialogues and some planning and practice tips for success.