How to Talk to an Audience When Public Speaking

3 Tips on How to Talk to an Audience

If you have ever seen someone who doesn’t know how to talk to an audience, then you know how important this skill is for success in public speaking.

Here’s the scenario.

You’re listening to a speaker who is on a roll. He or she hooked and engaged the audience. People want to listen to the speaker about the topic.

Then the speaker says: “Today I’d like to cover the three critical things that we need to do to accomplish our goal.”

Alright! The audience is bought in! The speaker rarely has their attention, but today the speaker does. Let’s get it!

“BUT FIRST I’d like to go back to something I talked about two weeks ago.”


The audience is left thinking: “I was looking forward to the three things…and then you gave me a head-fake.”

All message discipline was just lost. The audience just checked out. They won’t be back.

But why does the audience’s attention leave?

How to Talk to an Audience: 3 Reasons Why You Lose Their Attention

1) We hunt for information

Humans follow information like a hound follows a scent. When the information is dried up or not available, they go look for the scent somewhere else or lose interest.

“Information scent is made of cues that people use to decide whether a path is interesting,” says scientist Dr. Ed Chi. “Evolutionarily, the optimization strategies that are innate in each one of us in looking for food in the natural environment occur extremely often in just about everything that we do.” (Taken From Wired, HOT ON THE SCENT OF INFORMATION)

The same evolutionary principles can be applied to speeches. If we are on a scent to learn what we can do to fix a problem the speaker identifies, and the scent is lost, the listener is left confused and taken off the scent.

Information scent was first realized when scientist Chi was researching how people search on the web. For example, let’s say you create a Facebook ad with a picture and a value proposition. The ad directs your prospects to a landing page selling a product. If the landing page does not correlate to the Facebook ad with the same image or message, prospects stay away. The information they are looking for is lost.

The same is true when presenting to an audience.

Remember above when our imaginary speaker said this? “Today I’d like to cover the three things that we need to do to accomplish our goal.”

Then the speaker changes the subject. In that case, the audience loses the scent and the subject becomes uninteresting.

2) People’s attention spans suck

The last and most valuable of resources is human attention. -Tim Wu, Columbia Law Professor


They say that the average attention span is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds now. That is less than the nine-second attention span of your average goldfish.

Although these stats are common and actually challenged in this BBC article, it’s no secret that we are distracted almost always.

When you have an audience’s attention it is a big deal. A huge congratulations should be in order. Marketers spend millions just to get you to pay attention.

And the reason is that there is so much competition for your attention and we are so distracted with so many devices.

So when a speaker has the attention of a room, that speaker should do everything he or she can to keep it.

Changing the subject from the main focus of the speech is a distraction.

3) People want the new, unique stuff…

You just made that critical thing you were so passionate about… unimportant. If it was so important, why did you talk about something that happened two weeks ago?

That is so old and yesterday.

You were setting up the audience on how important what you were about to say was, then you didn’t even talk about it.

Your audience assumes it’s not as important or interesting as you said because you just treated it as such. Then they checkout.

Your audience are like news freaks. They want to hear the newest, cutting edge things about your company, not the stuff that was hot two weeks ago.

How to Talk to an Audience to Keep Their Attention

Once you have the audience hooked, it’s much easier to keep them interested. In the example above, our noble speaker simply did not stay on topic. Here’s three things to consider to help you stay on topic and develop strategic messages.

1) Message Discipline

Often when people communicate, they don’t sit down and ask, “what’s the one topic I want to talk about?” Instead they cherry-pick from many topics and try to shove it all in a speech. They treat it like an a la carte menu.

Don’t do this. Stay on topic. Don’t waffle and waver from one subject to the next, your audience can’t handle it. What do you want your audience to learn about? Pick one topic and stick with it.

2) Audience Recommendation (Call to action)

What do you want your audience to do? In the example in the beginning of this article, we had a speaker who hooked the audience. The speaker was talking about one goal, and three things people could to to accomplish it. But then he switched it to something that was less news worthy.

Just like the topic, pick one call to action. Don’t mix and match.

3) Keep it Simple

Do everyone a favor and remember that people just don’t have the attention span to stay focused. We are bombarded by messages everyday. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the news or simply drive on an interstate or major highway and look at the billboards. It’s important to keep your message simple so people can get onboard more easily and understand it more quickly.