Here's the hard truth. No matter what your speech is about; no matter how meaningful your message is, your audience members will drift away at some points during your talk.
It's not your fault. The average attention span has dwindled to a meagre 8 seconds.
You may have your audience's eyes when you are talking, but their minds may be elsewhere.
The key is to make sure they are with you for your entire talk. How do you do that? You ask a question. But here's the thing - it needs to be a specific type of question.
Have you ever been talking to someone that kept talking and talking, and at some point you drifted away mentally? Did they all of a sudden ask you a question that you couldn't answer because you weren't REALLY listening? (If you are married, you may be very familiar with this!)
What did that person do when they asked you that question? They SNAPPED you back into the conversation. You need to do that when you speak. You need to snap your audience right into the present moment by asking THEM questions throughout your talk. And here's the beauty of doing this - If you do this often enough, they will be with you for your whole speech. Or at least for more of it than they are for almost any other speaker's talk.
Here are 3 types of questions to ask while you are speaking to bring your audience back when their minds may have drifted.
1) The “Consider” Question - You know those people...?
Think of your speech like a conversation. When you are talking to a friend, do you ever just “check-in” to ensure that you are understood? Do the same with your audience.
Imagine you are talking about a person that is very generous. If you were talking to a friend one on one, you may say something like, “You know the type of person that would give you the shirt off of their back?” You do this to make sure that your friend can relate. Look for opportunities to add these types of questions to your speech. You want the audience to consider, or think about, the same person or thing that you are talking about. A key connection happens when they do this. In our above example, if you ask that question to your audience, they start to picture THEIR generous person. Then they are with you. When you ask the consider type of question, the audience is snapped back into the present, and their mind pictures what you want them to. That is a powerful asset to have when speaking.
2) Call Out - Have you ever ...?
The second type of question is the “Call Out”. Think of this as implanting your direct thought into the mind of your audience. If you want their attention, ask them a question. Have you ever... is a great way to do this. The 1999 World Champion of Public Speaking, Craig Valentine, advises that this is a great way to start a speech to engage your audience and make them curious. This is a great tool to add in the middle of your speech as well. Remember the 8 second attention span? Add a “Has this ever happened to you?” type of question to your speech after you have been speaking for a few minutes, and they will be right back with you. Try it!
3) Challenge... Are you willing to ....? Will you...?
The third type of question is the “Challenge” question. While the “Call Out” question may be one that you want your audience to either think about or answer out loud, the Challenge question is more of a “hmmm”, “A-ha moment” or thinking question (though you will sometimes hear audible responses as well). The challenge question is the one that forces you to look inside of yourself to answer. It is the one that may be uncomfortable to hear, but necessary for you to answer. It is the “Will you stand up and live your dream?” type of question. It is the “Do you have the courage to speak your truth?” type of question. One of my favourite speakers, Lisa Nichols, hits her listeners hard with theses types of questions. Ask your audience to live up to their potential. That is what these types of questions do.
Speaking coach Patricia Fripp says that a speech is not a conversation, but it should sound conversational. Remember that a speech is like a dialogue among friends. Ask questions to your audience, and watch (and hear!) your connection grow.
Kwesi Millington helps speakers, presenters and youth to connect with their audiences and master their messages using the power of storytelling in their speeches & presentations. He is a Certified Public Speaking Coach & Youth Mentor.