Tricia Karp Tricia Karp
23 July 2013

How to penetrate a lack of attention from your audience

Speaking at a lunch is tricky.

With waiters clearing plates and topping up wine glasses, people trying not to speak but whispering anyway because they haven’t finished with their calamari and want to say so before their plate’s whisked away, a guy reaching down to pick up his napkin, and the woman at the end of the table signaling to the guy sitting across from her to please pass the salt… let’s just say that, as the speaker, all attention isn’t exactly on you.

And it’s meant to be.  It’s your job to command your audience’s attention.

At a recent lunch, as a guest, I watched all this happening while the speaker up front did his best to penetrate the crowd. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a decent speaker, nor that what he was talking about wasn’t interesting.

It’s just that lunch was happening, the private dining room was very small and very full, and the speaker didn’t have a lot of space to move about.  If he stood on one side he had his back to half the people in the room.  And if he stood on the other side?  Same thing.  It’s impossible to connect with people when they have their backs to you.

I felt for him.  It was an awkward situation.

It’s why, the last time I was asked to speak at a lunch, I said I wanted to present after everyone had eaten.  It was a casual stand-up lunch, so this was easily arranged.  I was also given the option for how I wanted the room set up, and I said that after everyone’s eaten, I wanted them to sit down with their eyes front and centre.  On me.

It meant the allocated time for me to speak was about half of what it could have been.  I was more than willing to accept that, knowing that if I could have everyone’s undivided attention for 30 minutes that was way better than speaking for an hour and competing with the seafood risotto and whether the pastries were gluten free.

I digress.  Back to the speaker who was struggling to penetrate the crowd.

As he showed videos and slides on PowerPoint, and kept pushing through the distractions and disruptions, something remarkable happened about two-thirds of the way into his talk.

The room fell silent.  It was palpable.  People put down their knives and forks.  They all looked to the front where the speaker was standing.

Everyone was listening – truly, actively listening – even though the waiters were still swiftly going about their business.

Here’s why:

The speaker shared his why.  He talked about his personal story, the journey that led him to create the the wonderful work he’s doing.

Suddenly the talk didn’t feel like a lecture or bland training session any more.  Suddenly everything made sense.

And I connected with the speaker.  For the first time during that talk, I genuinely cared.

Plates were still clanging, glasses clinking, napkins falling, and a few people had one eye on the speaker and the other on getting in first for a pork sausage on parsnip mash…

Still, there was sweet silence amongst the audience.

Your why is the reason your audience exists.  Your why provides meaning.  Your why is your message and it matters more than anything.  Your why makes people care.

I have a very strong feeling that if the speaker had shared his why up front, right at the very beginning of his talk, he would have been so engaging that he would have easily surmounted all the distractions and disruptions.

It comes down to knowing how to structure your presentation so you make an impact from the moment you first open your mouth.

It’s about realising which stories best support your message and your why.

It’s also about owning your value and that of your experiences.  Without your stories, you risk delivering a presentation that’s dull and tasteless.

It takes courage to be so authentic and bold.

And it makes you a truly powerful speaker.

I want that for you, and your audiences.  Know your why, spruik it up front, and make your audiences care.  They’ll love you for it.

PS Never stand in a spot and present where people have their backs to you.  No!

~~~

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