Want to improve audience engagement? Try this

The Context: WordCamp Los Angeles 2013

This past weekend I spoke at WordCamp Los Angeles in front of 350 people right after lunch. My goal was to keep them awake. It was to share an insight, a single one, that I wanted them to remember at least 2 hours after I was done. And I wanted them engaged for the entire 30-40 minutes I spoke.

Here's why that's often an impossibility.

The Challenge: Audience Engagement

Here's the first thing I know.

Our brains are wired to pay attention when they really need to. Another way of saying that is that our brains are wired to protect us and when no threat is imminent, they shut off. Which is another way of saying people won't pay attention for 30-40 minutes straight.

Which is another way of saying my goals were ridiculous.

Another thing to note is that our brains are wired to be huge filters. In that effort to protect us, they save really critical things. What you ate last week for dinner doesn't get saved. It's filtered out. So are the six talks you'll hear in a day at a WordCamp. Which is another way of saying that it's not a person's fault that they don't remember what I said. It's their brains fault.

Which is another way of saying my goals were ridiculous.

The Solution in Three Parts

Starts and Stops

I told you that people's brains are working hard to keep them alive. They're paying attention to evaluate threats. Well, here's the good news. You know that now. And because you know that, you can leverage it.

We know that brains pay attention at the start of things (evaluating a new context) and at the end of things (preparing for a shift in context). So starts and stops are key.

What does that tell you?

What it tells me is that I can't prepare 1 30-minute talk. Instead, I should prepare 10 3-minute talks. Each with a start and an end. And if I do that, then I know that every time I start or stop, I'm giving the cue to all the brains in the room to pay attention.

It's exactly what I did. I created a lot of short stories rather than a couple of long ones. This allowed me to have a lot of breaks. And with each break, I would bring the audience back to attention.


Even when I was in the middle of a story, I would use contrast to my advance. Contrast, to a brain, is like a mini-start/stop. It's not a complete stop, but if it's a big enough change, a brain will perk up.

At one point I got really quite and said, “Can I tell you a secret?” almost in a whisper. It signaled to every brain in the room that they should pay attention. Something was different. The volume had changed. They better look up. And so all the eyes were back up to the front of the stage.

Repetition and engagement

Want to keep people engaged? Engage them. (I know, duh).

So I created a simple call and response. A simple refrain that I asked my audience to repeat. But as I did it, I was doing two things at once. I was asking them to repeat the main point over and over again. And I was forcing them to be engaged – they had a part in the presentation.

Even if they weren't doing it, their neighbor was saying, “Say goodbye to know-how.” And they did this at the end of every story – which was another way of signaling to everyone (and their brains) that the story was ending. My way of telling their brain it needed to pay attention again.

The Result

My goal in breaking this down for you isn't to suggest my talk was great. Or even good. Or that I'm good at leveraging these realities. Instead, my goal is simply to suggest a new way of thinking about your next talk.

Don't think about it as 1 talk. Think of it as 10. Mini presentations.

And if you do, then I think you might enjoy, as I recently did, a room full of people that, for at least 30 minutes, weren't staring at their cell phones but instead up at the stage.