If you’re asked to give a presentation in the final hours of a four-day conference, then brace yourself, because you’re facing some serious impediments. Your audience members have been on a fevered engagement high for half a week. They’re exhausted. They’re ready to catch flights back home. And they’re tapped out on charts and data.
So what do you do if you’re in one of the more unfavorable positions that a public speaker can face? How do you keep an audience engaged during a presentation? You let down your guard — and you let your audience in.
A Tale of Effective Professional Storytelling
If your immediate response is, “Great idea, but a story won’t keep an audience engaged,” you’re incorrect. I’ve seen how powerful storytelling can be, even if your listeners’ minds seem to be wandering.
Take the case of a presenter at a convention I attended. It was the final dinner. About 1,500 of us were sipping coffee, clanking cutlery, and feeling wary of listening to another speech. Our presenter, seemingly unfazed, walked onto the stage full of confidence.
Her speech began on a typical note: She introduced herself as an employee of an organization committed to helping people who have served jail time successfully reintegrate into society. She shared some alarming statistics on how difficult it is for incarcerated people to get a fair shake on the other side of justice.
So far, her approach had been informative. We stirred cream into our coffee, listening politely (but not totally engaged in her speech). Then, it happened: She went into full storytelling mode. With a notable change in her cadence and demeanor, she began talking about how she became a single parent years ago. After giving birth, she worked three jobs while trying to finish school. She regaled us with stories about school bake sales and late-night essays.