Attention Engagement DisinterestIn my last post, I argued that you already have attention at the start of your presentation. The task is not to grab attention, but to actively nurture the attention that you have and transform it into engagement.

Here’s the difference between attention and engagement:

  • If your audience is attentive you can pour information into them.
  • If your audience is engaged they are sucking that information from you.

Engagement is more valuable than attention.

Thinking in terms of engagement, rather than attention, has a number of benefits:

1. Many of the “attention-grabbing” techniques are not particularly appropriate for everyday business presentations. For example, if you’re delivering a project team update or a presentation to a decision-making committee, you don’t really need to give a shocking statistic or a story of how the issue has affected you personally. There are other more appropriate  ways of getting your audience engaged.

2. You may be at your most nervous at the beginning of your presentation. Putting pressure on yourself to have an attention-grabbing opening is not helpful. Instead think of building on the attention you already have to create engagement.

3. If you’re more of an introvert type, you might not be that comfortable making a big splash at the beginning of a presentation.

4. In an effort to have an “attention-grabbing opening” some presenters end up with an opening that has only tangential relevance to their topic. I heard about a speaker who started a business presentation by showing a photo of himself in an apron with a woman’s body in a bikini painted on. That may be an extreme, but sometimes the attention-getter is cheesy and has little relevance to the content of the talk.

5. An overly dramatic opening can be too jarring for the audience, as Rich Hopkins says it can put your audience “on guard”. If you think in terms of engagement, rather than attention, you’re unlikely to make this mistake.

So here are four ways to move your audience from attention to engagement.

1. Sell your presentation

To move from attention to engagement you need to sell your presentation. RadioLet your audience know what benefits they will get from listening to your presentation.

You’re answering the question “What’s in it for me?’ The answers to this question are known as WII-FMs. “WII-FM is the radio station everyone’s listening to”. Here are four groups of WII-FM’s to help you identify the WII-FMs for your audience:


How will your presentation improve the quality of their life or that of their organization? Or how will you help solve their problems? For example let’s say you’re presenting to your senior management team. They need to make a decision on whether to go ahead with a project. You might say:

“The information I’m going to present to you will help you make the most appropriate decision for this project.”


Does your presentation help people save time or become more efficient? Let’s say your organization is rolling out new software that all staff have to use. You’ve got the job of presenting the new software to groups of staff. You can say:

“This presentation will help you use the new software system so that you can save time.”


If your presentation can save people money, or help them earn more money you’ve got a built-in reason to listen.


This includes many facets – more fun, less stress, better relationships, feeling good. For example, in the presentation that I do promoting Kiva, a not-for-profit organization, I say:

“By lending money through Kiva, you can make a real and direct difference in someone else’s life.”

2. Evoke curiosity

Engage people by using “fascinations”, a copywriting technique. Fascinations are short bullet-points that tease the reader and compel them to keep on reading. Check out the covers of magazines such as Cosmo for great examples. You can use the same technique to compel your audience to listen. For example, in a presentation on overcoming the fear of public speaking, I could say:

“You’ll learn:

  • How to make your fear work for you, not against you
  • The three-step process to tame the voices in your head, and
  • The secret strategy for managing a mind blank so that your audience never knows.”

The easiest way to write fascinations is to adapt another writer’s fascinations to your topic. Check out women’s magazines and copywriting articles.

3. Be bold

If you’re frightened of making a statement that some people might disagree with, you’ll give a feeble presentation.

A sure-fire way of getting engagement is to make the main point of your presentation (what I call the key message) into a bold, potentially controversial, statement. Be brave, don’t hold back on what you really want to say.

This will galvanize the audience. The people who don’t agree with you will get worked up as they think of counter-arguments. The people who are on the fence will listen intently to find out if you can back up what you’ve said. The people who agree with you will be silently egging you on. And even the people who don’t care that much about the issue will stay engaged to see if your presentation will be a trainwreck!

4. Build rapport

Building rapport means being in sync with your audience. When you have rapport, people will want to listen to you. Here are three ways to build rapport:

Match the audience’s energy levels

In one and one conversation, you can consciously match your conversation partner’s body language to build rapport. In speaking to a group, adapt this idea. Start close to the audience’s energy levels and then build your energy and intensity taking the audience with you.

Empathize with the emotional state of the audience

This can range from light-hearted banter about the early start and lack of coffee, to acknowledging deeply held concerns.

Share what you have in common

Share a characteristic about yourself that you have in common with the audience.

When I open our introductory presentation skills course, I’m speaking to people who are feeling pretty apprehensive. Some are so nervous and shy they won’t make any eye contact with me. I start off gently telling my story of one of my early (and nerve-wracking) public speaking experiences. It ticks all the boxes for building rapport.

For other ideas about how to open your presentation, check out my post: Three levels of presentation opening: Which should you use?

Is attention-grabbing ever appropriate?

Yes. Having an attention-grabbing opening can work in some situations. For a great summary of these techniques see Garr Reynold’s post: Start your Presentation with PUNCH.

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