4 ways to move people from attention to engagement

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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  1. So many presenters lose the opportunity to grab an audience’s attention because their presentations don’t have a catchy title that spells out a benefit or invokes curiosity.

  2. Really like your point that you probably already have an audience’s attention, so you need to convert that into engagement.

    I’d quibble a bit about step one being Sell Your Presentation only because I think for some presenters that will lead them down a path at the start of their talk that could be difficult to recover from. I’d suggest something like Connect your Content. It’s a semantic shift for sure, but it’s one that might keep people out of overtly slick sales language and more in tune with the subsequent four areas you outline (which I think are great).

    • Hi Jeffrey
      You make an interesting point – and I’d love to know what difficulties you’ve seen from taking that approach.
      My experience of working with presenters is that they normally start from a position of being totally unaware about the benefits for the audience. Encouraging them to put in a sentence or two of how the audience will benefit does not come across as salesy. Thinking about the audience in this way at the beginning of their presentation, has them take in to account the audience’s needs throughout the presentation.
      There is great potential for presenters to learn from sales and copywriting to better get their message across. I do think this can be done without coming across as a used car salesman or an internet marketing yellow highlighter salespage. But if you’ve seen something different, do let me know.

  3. You can even build rapport BEFORE your presentation by greeting your audience, especially if it’s more of a keynote presentation with a larger audience. Get there early, set up and test, and leave yourself enough time to greet people as they arrive. Learn about them and what they’re hoping to get out of the presentation, and you can align your WIIFMs with your audience.

    Jon Thomas
    Presentation Advisors

    • Hi Jon
      I totally agree, and of course, now it can be done even before the day of the presentation, via email, surveys and twitter.

  4. One of the best ways to get audience engagement, without actually having to do something terrifying, is to set a puzzle. Not just any old puzzle – but one that highlights the message of your presentation.

    In a short narrated example on the m62 website, a client starts a presentation by setting a puzzle that illustrates why their audience might need help in the form of software:


    This sort of question/puzzle needs a bit of planning, but it can really get the audience engaged – particularly if the puzzle is challenging but not impossible. This particular client sometimes placed €20 notes on the table as a prize for anyone who could get the right answer quickly enough. That got the audience engaged! When the audience see they can’t get the right answer for a very simple case, they start to understand why they might need help. Telling them wouldn’t have the same impact as demonstrating to them.

    • Hi Joby
      Thanks for adding this technique, and providing a link to your example. It’s a great way of getting engagement.

  5. I think a great way to keep them engaged is to make them participate in a small way by asking short questions or asking them to raise hands if they agree with certain point etc. It worked for me, though I am not a professional speaker.

  6. Love your stuff Ms. Mitchell! Just one tiny quibble with this entry. I’m not confident that you have your audience’s attention at the “beginning” anymore. My clients are finding that increasingly, audiences are using any gap given them to check out – literally checking their blackberry’s or mentally checking out. If there are multiple speakers, the audience will use the transition between them to check their email, etc. Same goes when they are waiting for a presentation to start. People will not pay attention to much less engage with a presentation until they sense they are in the meat of it. And there is a lag even then so that full attention only happens (even with the best introductions) after the first few sentences.

    I agree that the “attention getter” as commonly defined by our profession can be too much for many speaking scenarios but the need for something to jerk the audience away from their blackberry’s is becoming even more critical.

    • Hi LeeAundra
      Thank you for your appreciation :-).

      I agree with you that in some environments, presenting is becoming more challenging because of people’s attachment to their gadgets. People stay involved with their gadgets even at the beginning of a presentation, because they’ve been conditioned to do so by so many mediocre presentations.

      So the most important things seem to me to be:

      – presentations should be short. If TED speakers can present big ideas in 18 minutes, so should the rest of us.
      – presentations should tell people near the beginning why they should listen
      – presentations should deliver relevant value to the audience
      – presentations should get to the point quickly.

      Thank you for causing me to do more thinking on this issue – I might expand on these points in a full post.


  7. 1 read of all the content of the blog as well as all the comments lifted me out of this world.

    Thanks to all,


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