Tag Archives: engaging your audience

How to Engage an Audience – Lessons from Professional Speakers


The annual Professional Speaking Association (PSA) Mega Conference is the event of the year for professional speakers in the UK and this year it was held in Nottingham from 7-9 October. It’s where members come together for three days to listen, learn, share and network with fellow speakers and trainers.

The PSA aims to help members to ‘speak more, speak better’ so the sessions were a mixture of tips on how to grow a speaking business and how to further develop speaking skills.

Whilst I have a notepad filled with brilliant takeaway messages from all of the speakers, the purpose of this post is to highlight some of the lessons we can learn from them about engaging an audience. Some are tips directly from their mouths, some are from my observations about the way the delivered their message.

1. Dress Like the Speaker

Jennifer De St Georges was one of the judges of the prestigious Speaker Factor competition and after the semi-final she mentioned that the contestants needed to consider how they were dressed. In her opinion, if they are aiming to become professional speakers they will need to dress appropriately for their audience and in a way that everyone knows they are the speaker. The following day at the finals it was clear who was dressed to win; some speakers really stood out and made the others look under dressed. Jennifer suggested that to gain respect from your audience and be seen as the expert, you need to dress accordingly (and as she says “If you’re not the expert, why are you the speaker?”)

2. Use Props

Props can really enhance your audience’s understanding of your message and over the weekend I picked out three great examples of how to incorporate props for maximum impact.

The first one was a sight gag that appealed to my sense of humour during the Comedy Night. Jason Butler had a couple of boxes wrapped up like presents; it went with line “I was told that as a speaker I need to have stage presents!” A great gag for an audience of professional speakers for whom good stage presence is vital.

Whilst sharing a story about Celebrity Service, Geoff Ramm talked about how he handed over his money to purchase something for his daughter’s birthday. The way he reluctantly reached into his pocket and pulled out a £20 note demonstrated exactly how he was feeling about parting with his cash; this would not have been as effective without the cash in his hand and demonstrated the benefit of showing over telling.

My favourite use of a prop was in Steve Judge’s Speaker Factor competition speech. Steve talked about an accident he had been in which caused him to lose a chunk of his tibia bone. He had a replica bone which he held up and snapped in two places to demonstrate where the bone had broken and then he dropped the broken piece into a metal bin. This prop not only worked visually but the sound of the snapping bone and the clunk as it landed in the metal bin really brought home the seriousness of the situation.

3. Memorable Phrases and Tweetable quotes

Whatever your topic, it’s always a good idea to include simple messages that are easy to remember and easy to share, especially if your audience is encouraged to post on social media such as Twitter. Here is a selection of my favourites from the weekend:

– If you can’t close enough sales, you’ll have to close your speaking business – Simon Hazeldine
– You are your own CEO, Chief Energy Officer – Celynn Erasmus
– If you want to increase the commas in your bank account, decrease the commas in your expertise – Dawnna St Louis
– You don’t own your brand, it lives in the minds of other people – David Avrin
– You have to deactivate to reactivate – Celynn Erasmus
– Don’t do it better, don’t do it cheaper, do it different. Stand out – Katie Bulmer-Cooke

Katie also stood out by using her own very appropriate made up word; she said she was going to share her “Kate-aways” to help make our businesses much fitter and stronger. A catchy phrase like this is a simple way to be noticed and remembered. Another person who does this very well is previous a PSA Mega Conference speaker from the USA, Patricia Fripp, who delights audiences with her “Frippisms”.

4. Storytelling

It has long been known that storytelling is one of the best ways to convey a message and ensure it sticks. Throughout the conference there were numerous examples of great storytelling including talks from Peter Roper, Alan Stevens, Tiffany Kemp, Katie Bulmer-Cooke, Andy Lopata and many more.

But my favourite example of storytelling, and in fact the highlight of the entire conference for me was in Geoff Ramm’s talk on Celebrity Service. Entertaining and engaging, his attention to detail, vocal variety and brilliant stagecraft brought his crystal clear message to life. He not only used the entire stage well to ensure he connected with everyone, but his expressive face and body language drew the audience in so we couldn’t help but be captivated. For a masterclass in storytelling, I highly recommend you spend 30 minutes watching this talk (after you’ve finished reading this post of course!)

5. Authenticity

The most appealing and engaging speakers are those that are true to themselves, who are comfortable in their skin and speak from the heart. Whilst they may learn from others, they don’t try to mimic or copy other speakers.

When looking to improve our public speaking we can often get hung up on the ‘rules’ for crafting the perfect phrases, focusing on where to stand, choreographing when to move and choosing which gesture will have maximum impact.

But more important is the ability to connect with an audience just the way you are. When on stage you need to bring an energy that is slightly bigger and better version of yourself in order to connect with your audience, but you still need to be yourself.

We were fortunate to witness a number of different speaking styles throughout the conference; the American speakers tended to have a larger and louder way of communicating their message whilst the British speakers were just as capable of engaging an audience even though their style was often very different. The importance of being true to your own style was is was highlighted by Andy Rogers, last year’s Speaker Factor winner, whose quiet demeanour and natural storytelling had us spellbound and the refreshing approach of Katie Bulmer Cooke who chatted away in her strong Northern accent just like we were having a conversation over a coffee.

Peter Brandl, a speaker from Germany challenged us in his keynote by asking “Are you willing to remove the mask on stage?” He urged us to stop trying to be the person we want to be seen as; it might protect us but it also protects our emotions from coming out and therefore stops us revealing our true self.

Authenticity is so important in speaking that Lee Jackson, the new President of The Professional Speaking Association announced that it is his theme for his PSA presidential year.

So when you are preparing for your next speech or presentation, remember to consider these 5 tips around image, props, memorable phrases, storytelling and authenticity to ensure you engage your audience like the professionals.

For more information about the Professional Speaking Association go to www.thepsa.co.uk. If you’re based in Scotland, why not come along to our next event in Edinburgh on Thursday 10 November – click here for details.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction. She is a multi-award winning speaker, trainer and coach and the founder of Grow Your Potential, which specialises in supporting individuals and organisations to design and deliver winning pitches and presentations.

Mel’s background includes over 20 years’ experience in public, private and not-for-profit organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom and she has also worked as an actor, presenter and singer. To find out more about Mel’s talks and programmes go to www.grow-your-potential.com or for public speaking and pitching tips follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_


7 Worst Ways to Open a Presentation


When giving a presentation it is crucial to fully engage your audience and build rapport from the beginning of your presentation; however, many speakers get their talk off to a bad start by not effectively using those first few moments. There are many ways to start a presentation that captures your audience’s attention and I’ll be writing about them in a future blog post. In the meantime, here are some of the phrases that you should absolutely avoid:

“Can you hear me?”

In most large venues, you will be offered either a lapel or hand held microphone and the event organisers will ensure that it has been tested. They will adjust the sound as you speak to ensure that you are heard. If using your own sound equipment, it is your responsibility to check it and, if you’re not using sound amplification, to project your voice accordingly. Asking ‘Can you hear me?’ is unprofessional and a wasted opportunity to engage your audience effectively.

“Sorry I’m not sure how to use this equipment; bear with me”

Once again, this statement shows a lack of professionalism and a lack of preparation. Always check that you know how to use the equipment and practice with it to get familiar with it so that your presentation runs smoothly; the last thing you want at the beginning of your presentation is for your audience to be distracted from your message by you fumbling about trying to work the equipment.

“I’m tired / nervous / hungover…”

Your audience have given up their time; in fact, they may have also parted with their money to hear you speak and they don’t care if your plane was delayed and you haven’t slept for 48 hours or whether you’re petrified of public speaking. If you want your audience to respect you and what you have to say, avoid sharing anything negative in your opening remarks.

“I’ll try not to bore you too much”

If you think you’re going to bore your audience then you haven’t done your homework. The first step to preparing a presentation is to research your audience so you can craft a presentation that is interesting and relevant to them. By saying up front that you’ll try not to bore them, you are setting up an expectation that they will be bored and they most likely will be!

“I’ll try to keep it short”

Why would you want to keep it short? You will likely have been allocated a certain amount of time and presumably you have an important message to share. The audience will feel ripped off if they are expecting your presentation to be a certain length and you tell them you are going to keep it short. Don’t undermine your presentation before you even get started by setting up an expectation that the audience won’t want to listen to you.

“I have a lot of slides to get through so I’ll go through this as quickly as I can”

People will generally be interested in what you have to say if you prepare well, grab their attention, build rapport from the start and help them know what to expect. If you mention you have a lot of slides to get through they’ll be expecting death by PowerPoint and will probably switch off before you even begin!

“I’ll start by telling you a bit about me”

Ideally you will have been introduced before you begin speaking (make sure you give the host/MC/event organiser your bio and introduction); if not, you may need to include a bit about yourself in your talk to establish your credibility. However, it is never wise to start your presentation speaking about yourself. Your audience want to know what’s in it for them so ensure that you gain their attention and interest before mentioning anything about yourself.

As speakers, presenters or trainers, we are in a privileged position of being able to inform, persuade, entertain and inspire large groups of people. Therefore, it is essential to show your audience that you respect them by prepared. You can do this by:

  • knowing your audience
  • crafting a presentation that is interesting and relevant
  • practicing
  • arriving on time
  • checking your equipment
  • preparing your mind, body and voice to give your best

The beginning of your presentation is the most crucial part and you have approximately 10 seconds for your audience to decide whether you are worth listening to. Avoid the statements above and avoid losing your audience before you begin!

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And if you’d like some further hints and tips on communication skills, follow me on Twitter @Grow_Potential or go to http://www.grow-your-potential.com