Dead fish in your audience?

You have just spent hours preparing your presentation. Your results are excellent and your slides are top of the line.

And yet, your audience is giving you the blank stare of a bunch of dead fish.Zero interaction. Why, though? How could you possibly pull them in?

Here are 3 important tips, listing the top one first.

1. Be excited yourself

Don’t be thrown off your game. You’d be astonished by how quickly an audience will take on a presenter’s vibe. You need to be excited on stage. How else can you expect your audience to get revved up about your topic unless you’re the first to do just that?

Don’t be intimidated by blank stares and subzero interaction, but be excited about those amazing results or the story you are sharing. Being excited will help in more ways than you can imagine: use it to cover up your nerves; people will have an easier time believing and trusting you if you believe and trust your own words. This may just snap them out of those blank stares.

2. Connect with your audience

Take a quick break from your story to find out what it is your audience wants to learn or what their concerns are. Ask them questions during your presentation. There is a reason why they are in the room: most likely they want to learn something from you.

But if you continue talking for twenty minutes about the color of your door, when your audience is only interested in the production process of the hinges, then you have lost them for good. Your presentation only becomes relevant for your audience, once you being addressing what is of interest to them. Failing to do so will have them popping up smartphones and laptops. Or worse, give you the dead fish stare.

Perhaps a more scientific example than doors and hinges?

  • If your audience wants to find out how polluted the air is in Brussels, then don’t delve into the working of your new measuring device.
  • If your audience wants to know more about the impact of cantilevers and gantries in traffic, then don’t cover the history of the traffic sign. (Cantilevers and gantries are two types of road signs used to regulate traffic. The things I pick up while teaching workshops to researchers 🙂 )

3. Focus

Don’t expect an audience to continue being interested in 10 topics plus 37 subtopics. Why not stick to 3? Again, you have to be excited. And how could you even be excited about 10 topics plus 37 subtopics?

Just imagine a travel journalist being utterly ravished about each and every little spot he shares with you. This person would quickly lose his credibility and your attention. Drop the topics your audience and you are not passionate about, or touch upon them only briefly.

A classic example of this is Steve Jobs’ presentation of his new MacBook Air in 2008. This device is powerful, to say the least, and yet Jobs simply pulls the laptop out of a manilla envelope to focus on just one thing: how slender and light it is. And this is clearly very exciting to him.

Following his presentation, the audience went home with just one thought on their mind: ‘Wow, did you see how slender and light that thing was?’. If Jobs had zoomed in on several (technical) properties of the MacBook Air, he would definitely not have generated this reaction.

If you don’t focus, people will lose the bigger picture and drift off. By focusing on three things at the most, you are giving your audience a clear message for them to reflect upon and form an opinion on.

Note: this is not to say that your audience should automatically agree with your ideas. Creating an interested and eager audience is not the same as convincing them of your thoughts. Instead, what counts is them actively being a part of the discussion and following along.

A more scientific example than a MacBook Air?

  • A presentation without focus sounds like this: “There are 9 ways to curb population growth, and I’d like to discuss them each in detail for the next 20 minutes.
  • A presentation with focus sounds like this: “We can curb population growth by battling child mortality, and this is what I will be talking to you about for the next 20 minutes.”

Dead fish, after all?

Are there dead fish among your audience, after all? Don’t let them trick you into rattling off your presentation, showing no further interest in your audience.

Have you been talking for a while? Why not take a quick break. No time for a break? Try to jump-start your audience by firing some questions at them. Show them a relevant video fragment, share something funny, create an assignment or drop a discussion-provoking statement.

This may just do the trick and jolt them back awake.

Good luck!