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Getting Your Audience to Lean In

A great ending to a speech is only great if the audience is still listening. The most important part of the speech is a rapport-building beginning.

A great ending to a speech is only great if the audience is still listening. The most important part of the speech is a rapport-building beginning.

The first thing a speaker or presenter must do is establish rapport with his or her audience. Unless listeners are leaning in, they are likely to tune out.

Giving a speech or presentation requires careful preparation and practice. But even the best speech or clever presentation can fall flat if there is a gulf between speaker and audience. 

Bridging that gulf is what separates speakers from good speakers. It also is what distinguishes a speech you hear versus a speech you remember. 

Establishing speaker-audience rapport rests with the speaker. Even if you pay to hear someone, you expect the speaker to make the first move to create a bond, a reason for sharing time and mental energy together and a good excuse not to check smartphone messages.

Here are some tips on how to establish rapport with your audience:

Call out associations you have with the audience or members of the audience. 

Former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson started his speech at the Portland City Club by briefly describing tours he had taken and recognizing people in the audience for their roles in the success stories he had seen. Thompson made a connection between himself and his audience that he underscored throughout his speech with examples from his Portland site visits. The speech was more than a decade ago and I can still remember how he opened it and his main points, especially his strong advocacy for public health. 

Tell a heartwarming story

Stories unite people. We instinctively lean in when someone is telling a story, especially a personal story that has emotional value. Stories personalize speakers by making them less like someone behind a podium or in front of a PowerPoint presentation and more like everyone in the audience.

Use self-effacing humor

Jokes can be dangerous. The safest application of humor is when you make fun of yourself. The key is to be self-effacing without appearing disingenuous. You also don't want to convey to your audience that you are a buffoon. Laughing at yourself can be disarming, all the more so if the punch line serves as a segue into the content of your speech or presentation. 

Touch an emotional nerve

Be aware of what's going on the world around you and, when appropriate, use a commonly shared emotion as a rapport-builder. Tapping into the emotions of an audience is tricky and demands a solid read on the audience so you draw them toward you in sympathy, not spark resentment or even disgust. But when done with the proper empathetic touch, it can be a powerful way to put you and your audience on the same page.

Many speakers devote a great deal of their energy finding the right ending. They should spend an equal amount of time figuring out how to start so their audience joins them on the journey, rather than taking an early detour.