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How to Deal With An Unresponsive Audience

You’ve spent the last two weeks rehearsing for a big presentation, gone over your main points the night before, and even did a few pushups before taking the stage, to pump up your energy. But now that you are standing in front of a group of respected colleagues, you get a sinking feeling that things aren’t going well. Your audience is not responding to your message.

Unresponsive audiences manifest themselves in a few ways. Maybe the guy in the front row is checking his phone while you’re flailing your arms, trying to be as dynamic as possible. Worse yet, a group in the back is blatantly carrying on their own private conversation, completely oblivious of your words and your deck. Less obvious are the people who may be looking around the room instead of at you, or the ones who are giving you deer-in-headlights stares.

But fear not: It can happen to even the best presenters, and there are several ways to engage even the most unresponsive of audiences — both during and after a presentation. Here’s how:

Grabbing Attention

Walk around the room. Leave the podium and get down to the level of your audience members. Make eye contact with them as you walk by. Chances are good that they will put their phones down in no time.

Involve them in your story. An audience is more likely to pay attention when a presenter gets personal about a topic and brings the group into the discussion. Speak to specific challenges audience members are facing and how your presentation will help them in the future. Speak directly to them—you will get their attention.

Encourage participation. An active, participating audience is the type of group that will remember your presentation for years to come. Encourage this participation by asking people questions, or even bring them onstage to demonstrate points with you. If Q&A is scheduled for the end of your talk, switch things around and put it at the beginning. Then, tailor your message to the questions asked, for an even more attentive group.

Focus on those who are paying attention. When it seems like a presentation is going south, it can be easy to focus on those people who look bored or unhappy. Guard against this negative way of thinking and know that there are people in the audience who love what you’re saying. Find them and zero in on their positive energy. It will help you confidently move forward.

Planning for Next Time

While it may feel nice to finally finish a presentation where the audience reminded you of the living dead, it is important to consider what you can do differently next time. Here are a few tips to help make your next go-round more successful.

Research your audience. Who will be in the crowd next time? What do they care about? What do they want to learn and why are they coming to see you talk? Consider this information when preparing your speech to help you tailor your words to their receptive ears. (Check out our presentation checklist for more questions you should ask before giving any presentation.)

Start strong. Some say that the first few seconds of a presentation are the most important. This is when you either grab the attention of your audience or start putting them to sleep. Rehearse an exciting intro and deliver it with enthusiasm.

Vary your tone and energy level. Even with a strong start, you want to be careful not to have Energizer Bunny-level intensity throughout the entirety of your speech. Instead, vary your tone—interject humor at times, be serious at others, and exhibit high and medium energy at others. It will keep your crowd on their toes.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. A prepared speaker is a successful speaker. Do a test run to discover the weak points in your presentation—gather a group of trusted friends and colleagues and present to them several times before going on stage. Ask for their honest opinions on what you are doing well and where you can improve.