The First Rule of Speechmaking: Keep Your Audience Awake


Fam Pract Manag. 1998 Mar;5(3):84-85.

As speakers, family physicians are in demand. Community groups ask you to help them understand our complex, ever-changing health care system. A local high school requests your insights on the medical profession at “career day.” A residency program needs an inservice on hypertension. Your state Academy chapter wants you to speak on practice management at its annual meeting.

Whatever the occasion, your main goal should be to get your point across, and you can only do that if you capture and keep your audience's attention. These tips can help:

Make “being interesting” a personal goal. To avoid boring your audience into unconsciousness, make a personal decision to only give talks you wouldn't mind sitting through yourself. When your topic is particularly dry, ask yourself: “If I were in the audience, how could a speaker keep me awake?”

Create positive anticipation. An eye-catching title can help draw a crowd of avid listeners. At a health fair, for example, you'll probably get more interest from a title such as “Is It Heartburn or a Heart Attack? How to Know the Signs and Increase Your Chances of Survival” than from “Heart Attacks” or, worse yet, “Myocardial Infarctions.”

Be interesting right away. A dynamite introduction will help you win over your audience and boost your confidence from the start. You can establish instant rapport by asking a rhetorical question (“Has this ever happened to you ...”) or by requesting a show of hands (“How many of you are now in the process of negotiating with a managed care organization?”). Other simple but effective attention-getters include using a pertinent quotation, referring to a historical event, telling an intriguing story or stating an unusual fact.

Appeal to people's fascinations. People often perk up when they hear superlatives: the most, the best, the worst, the least, the tallest, the longest, etc. Here's an example: “Did you know that, according to The Book of Lists, people rank public speaking as their No. 1 fear? This fear even exceeds people's fear of death and snakes.” Such statements, in addition to engaging people's interest in “what's No. 1,” are doubly effective when audience members can personally identify with your remarks.

Use vocal variety. When giving a long speech on a dry topic, the surest way to torture your audience is by speaking in monotone. Varying your rate, pitch, volume and tone can help, but don't change your vocal quality for no reason; use your voice to reflect whatever mood you're trying to create. in a speakers' joke book, but simply to add some elements of humor that are relevant to the topic. If you thread humor into the early portions of your talk, the audience will want to stay awake so they don't miss your next amusing point. If a humorous statement seems risqué or questionable, however, think twice before using it; if it backfires, you'll defeat your purpose and turn the audience against you. (Hint: If you feel a need to ask someone whether a certain statement is appropriate, it's probably not.)

Offer some comic relief. The idea here isn't to tell a string of jokes that you found

Get to know your audience. Groups invariably pay more attention to speakers who know something about them and speak to their needs. For a simple audience profile, ask the meeting planner these questions in advance: What's the expected size and makeup of the audience? To what degree are they familiar with my topic? What are their concerns? What are the main things they'd like to know?

Don't be a mannequin. If you want to be seen as interesting, be seen as interesting! Use a variety of hand gestures and body movements, not the same ones over and over. (A tip on using hand gestures: Consider your arm and hand as one unit. This way, your movements will be larger and more definite, and you won't come across as fidgety or lacking confidence.) Use your eyes to “work the room,” and incorporate some fluid but nondistracting pacing, as appropriate. In other words, be yourself (the one with a lot of personality), not a robot.

Read and respond to nonverbal cues. You'll learn a great deal about a group's interest level by reading facial expressions and body language. If your audience members are sitting up and looking at you attentively, you've probably got them hooked. If you see people dozing off, scowling, looking at their watches or even leaving the room, consider some remedial measures by doing something differently — and fast. Change the subject. Tell a captivating story. Insert a statement that usually gets a laugh. Increase, or vary, your volume. Walk closer toward your audience to make a key point. Broaden your gestures. Be more animated. Use a group exercise that enables people to stand up, move around or participate in small group discussions.

Lighten the room. It's especially challenging to keep people awake when you're speaking after lunch or at the end of a long day, when everyone is tired anyway. If you dim the lights so your slides will show up on the screen, you'll surely increase the snooze factor. Instead, use overhead transparencies so you can keep the lights as bright as possible — and keep the group's focus on you.

Inject some real life. The use of anecdotes, examples and stories can make even the most technical or potentially boring topic come alive. Imagine how much more interesting you can make a talk on, say, a new method of medical record keeping by giving an example of how the new system was used in an actual practice and how it made a real difference to the doctors, nurses and patients.

Drop names. Referring to an individual who personifies a certain point you're making is another way to make an audience sit up and take notice. Cite a well-known personality, or describe how a relatively unknown person was impacted by your subject. For example, “I became especially concerned about this issue last year when I was treating a patient whom I'll call Bill Smith. ...” This latter technique was especially well-used by former President Reagan (notice the name-dropping).

Use colorful language. Since clichés (“cool as a cucumber”; “wise as an owl”) won't give your speech much pizzazz, try to think of original, vivid phrases. For example, actor-comedian Robin Williams once described his entry into a crowded room as “walking into a human car wash.” It's creative and interesting, yet it gets the point across.

Share your enthusiasm. Remember that enthusiasm is infectious; if you're excited about a topic, the audience is more likely to get that feeling, too. So if you love your subject, let it show. Let the audience hear enthusiasm in your voice. Let them read it in your eyes and in your body language as you explain the reasons for your personal interest.

Do all of the above at regular intervals. Saying just one interesting thing in the introduction of your talk is simply not enough to sustain an audience's attention. Instead, lace your speech with a steady stream of examples, anecdotes, stories, quotes, rhetorical questions, humor, etc., to keep your audience alert and involved.

Ellen Belzer is president of Belzer Seminars and Consulting, LLC, a company specializing in negotiation, communication and management training and services. She also provides on-site speech coaching to health care organizations throughout the United States and is a member of the FPM Panel of Consultants.


Copyright © 1998 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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