How to engage an audience

Fred Smith clearly outlines the concept of audience participation.

By Fred Smith

The primary goal of a speaker is not simply to have people sit quietly while we talk, but to have their minds actively engaged by our subject matter.

Over the years I've had various preachers send me sermon tapes. I have to believe they send me their best tape. And I really ache. I'd like to sit down with them and say, "Let's talk about what you're doing as a communicator."

One common mistake is trying to create feelings by over dramatization—by telling sob stories, getting tears in the voice, or yelling. Listeners quickly realize the speaker isn't depending on the subject matter to produce the emotion, but the dramatization. And when people are thinking more about how you're saying something than what you're saying, your effectiveness is lost.

On the other hand, some preachers are so deadpan, they might as well be reading a recipe or a research report. You'd never guess they thought real people were listening.

In either case, my recommendation is to try more conversational speaking. People listen to it without antipathy. When I raise my voice, people tend to put up a barrier to my increased volume. It's like that story about the kid who told his mother he'd decided to be a preacher.

"Why?" she asked.

"Well," he said, "if I'm going to be attending church all my life, I'd much rather stand up and yell than sit and listen to it."

The minute somebody starts yelling, people mentally distance themselves. Many speakers think they're doing it for emphasis, but generally it doesn't work that way. It deemphasizes.

If I want to say something really important, I'll lower my voice—and people will lean forward to hear what I'm saying. In a sense, you're putting intimacy in a point by lowering your voice. You're saying, "This point means something to me. I'm telling you something from my heart."

By increasing the volume, the talk often comes across as more performance than a heartfelt point you're making to another individual. If you want people to digest what you're saying, you don't want them to feel you're performing.

I don't want people to observe. I want them to participate, because the whole object of speaking is to influence attitudes and behavior.

How do I encourage participation? Not necessarily by being entertaining. If people are listening for the next story or next joke, I've become a performer. I've got to be smart enough to know when my material is getting inside them. I may need to make them laugh. I may need a pointed statement. But when they are genuinely listening and understanding, they are participating.