Claim your Space

Lisa Braithwaite from Speak Schmeak has commented on my post about the attention-getting myth. I started responding to her comment, but my response got so long I decided it was worth a blogpost in its own right.

The issue is how to best help nervous speakers at the start of a presentation . Lisa suggested that:

Using an opening that immediately involves the audience, for example, through asking questions, engages them while also immediately taking pressure off the speaker to perform.

When the audience is allowed to participate and share their own knowledge and life experience, they are more engaged. The presentation becomes about them, not the nervous speaker.

My take on it is different. Nervous speakers are generally at their most nervous at the start of a presentation. As they get into their stride and realise that the presentation might just go OK their nervousness often reduces. So my approach is to help the nervous speaker get into their stride with as little risk as possible.

And I think asking questions is risky. It can easily go wrong. For example, you might get no responses – or you might have a garrulous member of the audience who takes over. This leaves the nervous speaker in an even more difficult situation. Asking an effective question that elicits the type of response you want and then handling the responses you get is a skill that requires practice, confidence and experience.

In fact, I don’t recommend asking questions right at the beginning for any presenter. During a presentation, the presenter is the leader. And leaders should start by leading. A leader can become more democratic once they’ve established their authority and credibility as a leader. So at the beginning of a presentation, the presenter should “Claim their Space”. Once you’ve claimed your space, which could be as little as two minutes, then it can be an effective strategy to involve the audience by asking questions.

Finally – does asking questions and getting the audience to respond mean that people are more engaged? Not necessarily. Audience participation has to be well-managed for it to be engaging for everybody. I might be more engaged in the moment that I’m offering my own opinion – but listening to other people make unprepared and often waffly comments isn’t what I’m there for. In that situation, I would rather hear from the speaker who has (hopefully) thought about and prepared what they want to say.

Audience participation is a great tool – when managed with skill and at the right moment in the presentation.

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  1. Thanks for the post!

    I definitely believe in asking questions, but I think you are probably right that they shouldn’t be asked at the beginning.

    I know exactly the sort of waffling that you are talking about. It is then the presenters job to make sense of the comment or to redirect the conversation. This is tricky.

    Speakers need to be on top of their game, which is impossible if they are overly nervous.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    Terry Gault

  2. @Terry. Yes, sometimes making sense of audience comments is a real challenge. Some comments appear to have no relationship to what you’ve been talking about. My philosophy is to avoid making judgements (positive or negative) on any comments I get. That is, I will thank the person and make a response if required, but I don’t say things like “That’s a great point”. That means when an audience member says something that doesn’t seem to make sense (and I don’t have time to tease it out within the session) I can just say “Thank you” and the person will not feel humiliated or put-down.

  3. Most of my speaking experience comes from teaching technical topics.

    I typically ask questions at the beginning of my presentations. It allows me to change the presentation based on real time feedback. Granted, you have to be pretty confident in your knowledge of the topic, and your ability to handle an audience, to do this effectively. Having the ability to change content on-the-fly usually makes the presentations better. At least I believe that it does.

    I like comment #2. The habit of saying “great question” is a great one to avoid. I think that people do it because they are nervous and want the audience members to like them. The problem, as Olivia states, is that if you forget to do it you are telling the entire audience that THAT specific question wasn’t great. You may insult an audience member.

    One of the things that makes presentation so interesting is that there are no hard and fast rules. There are people out there who can make anything and everything work. It is fascinating…

    I am enjoying your blog.

  4. @Jeff, you raise the issue of knowing your audience. I think this is extremely important for any presentation, and we can do it by asking questions of the audience.

    However, whenever possible, I think that this should be done before the presentation. Last week, I went on a training course (as a participant) and the trainer spent half an hour finding out from each of the 20 participants what we wanted to get out of the course. This was wasted time from my point of view as a participant.

    This may be an extreme example, but it is now easy to gather information about the knowledge levels and interests of the audience beforehand. Put together a questionnaire on your website and ask members of your audience to fill it in beforehand. For an example see

    I agree with your point that there are no hard and fast rules in presenting – it does make it fun.

  5. Oh, I am a firm believer in knowing the audience in advance. For me that is a given. But often it pays to know what they are thinking about at that moment in time. The only way to discover that is to ask.

    Keep in mind, my only training experience is technical — computer related. One of the reasons that it is done at the beginning of many courses is so that the attendees can get to know one another. I have found that classes who discuss things gain more from the training. This is especially true for training/presentations delivered over the Web. Without the interaction you wouldn’t know who else is on the phone.

    Before I started teaching I hated having to do the introduction;) Now I see it for what it is. It is a chance to find someone who may be dealing with the same set of issues that you are — someone who may be able to help you. Keep in mind, my background is highly technical computer training. Our students like to know who in class is using environments similar to theirs. I think that makes a difference.

    I have seen many cases where a student filled-out a survey and stated they most wanted to learn about ‘A’ but when we did the introductions their priority had changed to ‘B.’ This is usually because an “issue” popped-up the day before they left for training.

    When I ask a question at the beginning of a presentation it is usually to get the audience thinking about a certain idea or concept. Typically, these are rhetorical. That being said, if you are going to do this you best be prepared to handle an unexpected answer. I don’t do it every time that I present, but I do use it quite often.

  6. Hi Jeff – I’m totally with you on all the points you make. On our training courses, even though we have the questionnaires that each person filled in, we do “continuums” so that participants can get to know other people on the course and find out who has similar issues to them. For some people on our presentation courses, the first breakthrough is finding out that other people get as nervous as they do!


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