What Makes a Speaker Engaging?
Updated: Jan 11
The secret ingredients to captivating an audience.
What makes an engaging speaker is the number one question people who want to change hearts and minds should be asking. What makes you want to lean in and devour every word someone is sharing? We know it when we see it. A speaker who can command a room and hold the attention of hundreds, if not thousands of people for a significant amount of time is powerful and memorable. They seem to have a superpower that enables them to make audiences laugh or cry on cue, effortlessly. You may call it charisma, presence, star power, or the “it” factor. Call it what you will; it isn’t magic. It’s not a gift that some are born with, and others are not, though it does come more naturally to some people. Some specific techniques and elements create a recipe for engaging an audience. Which means you can learn and master them.
Have you ever been given feedback on your public speaking? If so, you’ve probably heard the basics and been told to adjust at least one of these fundamental expressions.
1) Make eye contact
2) Move with purpose
4) Speak loudly
5) Enunciate clearly
These basics are what I refer to as technical skills. They are the most fundamental elements of speaking, and they come naturally to you when you are talking one on one with a friend or colleague. Just think, have you ever asked yourself, “What should I do with my hands?” before talking to your best friend or significant other? You probably don’t worry much about your gestures or inflection when telling a story at a party. And yet, the moment you are going to stand in front of a group and talk, these essential communication skills suddenly feel foreign. It’s as if a switch has flipped, and we suddenly feel like an alien in our own bodies. This switch is self-consciousness, and the only way to battle it is by learning to focus on your audience and your purpose instead of yourself.
Anyone can tell you to be louder, make eye contact, and gesture more. However, if those actions are not connected to something deeper, they will be empty and feel foreign to the speaker. If these expressions are a challenge for you, they are symptoms of your nerves, not the actual problem. For example, if you talk too fast and rush through your presentations, it’s probably because you’re desperate for the whole thing to be over as soon as possible. If you grip the podium for dear life instead of moving or gesturing at all, it might be because you’re terrified of the smallest thing throwing you off. If you struggle to make eye contact, it’s probably because you are not clear enough on your goal and rehearsed enough to take your eyes off your script. Regardless of which symptoms you struggle with, your execution will be ruled by your fears if you are speaking from a self-conscious place.
Here’s the good news. If you can feel confident, connect and respond to your audience in the moment, and deliver a focused presentation, these fundamental expressions mostly take care of themselves. I appreciate that it is easier said than done, and as a leadership coach, that’s what I help people do. Here’s what really captures and holds an audience’s attention.
The number one factor is relatability. The speaker makes a personal connection with the audience, and they can connect with them on a human level by telling stories.
The audience must buy into your ideas, see the potential outcomes/benefits, and trust you. This may include sharing your background, expertise, and supporting data to establish your credibility. It also involves painting a clear picture of the future state you are proposing or offering. And the best way for people to know, like, and trust you is by telling a relatable story.
No matter the subject or situation, there should always be an entertaining element when speaking to a group. The more you can entertain people with interesting stories, humor, unexpected PowerPoint images, and precise comedic timing, the more engaging you will be. The dryer the topic, the more you have to entertain—the more serious the topic, the greater the need for comic relief. A great way to entertain an audience is by sharing personal stories of mishap adventures and vulnerability, including suspense and surprise elements when possible.
The speaker must model a passion for the subject. They must emulate the level of energy and enthusiasm that they want the audience to feel for their message. Often it takes even more energy on the part of the speaker to move hundreds of people emotionally and spiritually. A speaker who successfully models passion will feel tired after presenting from the amount of energy and intent they used to deliver the message.
Another factor is that the speaker responds to the audience. They are present and interacting with the audience. The speaker can go off-script to react to an unexpected laugh or comment. They can sense when the audience is getting bored and change tactics, topics, or even engage them with a question. The presentation is not so prescribed and rigid that they can’t be flexible and responsive in the moment.
Learning Something New
Audiences love to learn new things. Whether it be learning something new about themselves, their colleagues, their leaders, their company, or something that gives new meaning or sense to them. A great way to connect with your audience and be present and responsive to them is approaching your presentation as if you were a teacher. What is it you want the audience to learn? What will they know or understand by the end that they didn’t know at the start? Teaching is much more active than “giving information,” and it’s a great mindset to be in if you want to be an engaging speaker.
A Fulfilling Journey
Audiences love a fulfilling journey. Without realizing it, audiences want an experience that starts at one point, ends at a predetermined destination, and provides valuable insight along the way. You provide that by giving clear expectations at the beginning and delivering on your promise by the end. You create a clear road map for getting from point A to point B, so you don’t get lost on tangents.