How to Engage an Audience During a Presentation: A 4 Step Guide


As a speaker, you have the exciting opportunity to share your knowledge and expertise with an audience. However, as a human being, you may have insecurities about your abilities to captivate and educate others.

Let’s face it, giving a presentation is not easy. It requires confidence, preparation, and practice.

From the moment you sign that contract until the moment you walk off that stage, your mind could be flooded with overwhelming thoughts of “what ifs.”

What if they think I’m boring? What if they think my research isn’t good enough? What if they are all sleeping?

Great speakers know that one of the essential pieces to delivering a great keynote is the speaker’s ability to be audience-focused and connect with their audience in a meaningful way.

Shifting from a “speaker-focused presenter” to an “audience-focused presenter” was one of the most critical lessons I learned as I developed my speaking career. 

Early in my speaking career, a well-respected keynote speaker named Barney Zick came to hear me speak. After my presentation, he came up and said,

“You’ve got talent. You have a great stage presence, and you are funny! All you need now is to stop talking about yourself and invite your audience into your keynote. Be more audience-focused rather than speaker-focused.”  

Back then, I was in love with my content and my stories. I focused on what I wanted the audience to learn but never stopped to think if my content truly aligned with their wants and needs.

It took me several years to figure out what he was saying. He was right; I had way too much content, and my stories and successes centered around me. I was not inviting the audience into my keynote.

Today audiences are savvy. They can immediately sense when the speaker doesn’t sincerely care about connecting with them. They know instinctually when a presentation is speaker-focused, and they tune out.

In this post, I will share ways to be a more audience-focused presenter so you can engage an audience in a way that will leave a lasting and meaningful impression.

Step 1: Do Your Research

Even if you have the most eloquent and charming stage presence, without proper research, your audience will feel like you’re winging it–because you are! This is the biggest challenge for many public speaking novices.

Remember, a speaker’s job is to identify a problem or challenge facing the audience and guide them to a solution.  A speaker is hired for a conference or meeting to teach, inspire and influence audience members to make positive changes in their jobs, days, and lives. In other words, speakers are hired to solve problems.

So, how does a speaker determine the problems the audience faces? 

Ask the Right Questions

Knowing as much as you can about your audience is a great way to get inside their heads. The more that you know about your audience, the easier it will be to engage them. You will be able to tailor your speech so that everyone gets something out of your presentation.

When preparing for your presentation, try to answer the following questions to identify the challenges the audience faces.

  • What do they want (and need) to get out of your presentation?
  • What knowledge gaps do you need to fill?
  • What problems is your presentation trying to solve for your audience?

Make a Discovery Call

The best way to answer these questions and understand your audience’s challenges is to have a conversation with the meeting planner or, even better, the entire team responsible for bringing you in to present.

For every presentation, schedule a discovery call discussing the audience’s needs.

Last year during the pandemic, I created a program for a large hospital here in Houston. The focus was to help ease the elevated risks of stress, exhaustion, anxiety, and burnout the hospital staff faced daily.

I asked the meeting planner (HR director) if I could interview a few hospital leaders to better understand their challenges. She asked the leadership team if they were open to a 30-minute call; 15 leaders agreed.

Those calls opened my eyes to the challenges and moments of joy the hospital staff experienced. I heard incredible stories of bravery and love that enhanced my presentation connecting me on a deeper level with the audience. Telling their stories made the presentation real and placed them as the central focus of my program. 

Step 2: Make the Audience the Hero of Your Presentation

As a speaker, it can be very tempting to make your presentation all about your story and experience, but audience-focused presentations take the listener on a journey where they are the central focus.

Joseph Campbell’s famous identification of the “Hero’s Journey” positions the speaker as the guide and the audience as the hero. While speaker and TED Talk Presenter Nancy Duarte believes that in every presentation, the speaker’s role is that of the mentor or guide and the audience’s role is the hero.

This small but powerful shift honors our audience’s journey and struggles, allowing us to provide the information, tools, and stories they need to succeed.

When we position our audience as the hero and ourselves as their guide, we become sought-after speakers, helping our audiences along their journey.

Make the ‘I’ in your story become ‘we,’ so the whole tribe or community can come together and unite behind your experience and the idea it embodies.

Step 3: Engage on the Stage

Have you ever sat through a painfully boring presentation? I have, and I know that it can be hard to watch! The audience wants actionable information that is relevant to their work and their lives. And they want it presented in an entertaining, engaging style that keeps them involved and curious.

Use Humor Effectively

Humor is a great way to engage an audience, but only if it’s used correctly. If your presentation is filled with cheesy puns, your audience will quickly become turned off. And if your presentation is filled with cringe-worthy “dad jokes,” your audience will dislike you even more.

Humor is tricky because it’s different for every group of people and even for every individual. The only way to know if your audience will respond positively to your humor is to try it out in a small group setting.

Be mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities in your audience as well. You don’t want to offend anyone. Using humor in your presentation can bring your audience together and help them enjoy the experience.

Build Trust with Empathy

In addition to being entertained, the audience wants to trust the speaker. They want someone with the knowledge and experience to understand their challenges—and they want someone they can trust.
Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Expressing empathy isn’t hard to do. Once we identify the audience’s problems, we let them know we understand them.

When Bill Clinton said his famous line, “I feel your pain,” in 1992, he expressed his understanding of the pain and frustration Americans were going through. Many feel that this was the line that won him the Presidential election.

When we empathize with our audiences’ challenges, we create a bond of trust. In your opening segment, weave in the right combination of experience and empathy to show you know what they are going through, and you know how to get them through it.

Share Your Expertise

Empathy alone won’t build trust. When we are listening to a speaker, we need to know that they are the competent experts portrayed in their impressive bio! After all, if the audience is going to trust you to give them the solution they need, they must believe you have the knowledge and experience to back it up.

Gently weave in some of your expertise in the opening segment of your presentation.

Step 4: Help Your Audience Feel Something

We all love to be inspired. We love to get fired up about a cause. Great speakers know how to get their audience to feel something.

This does not mean we must all be “ra-ra” motivational speakers. However, one of the critical components of engaging an audience is to elicit some emotional response.

I’ve heard speakers with amazing content that just didn’t connect with their audience because they failed to make an emotional connection. And I’ve heard speakers with what struck me as somewhat bland content that killed it because they knew how to build that emotional bond.

Regardless of your topic or content, if you can get your audience feeling something authentic, they will walk away with a new perspective on the subject and a new appreciation for what you have done.


Giving a presentation is a huge undertaking. It’s something that you should be proud of and excited about. It’s a huge opportunity to share your expertise with others—but it requires confidence, preparation, and practice.

Good speakers know how to connect with their audience, shifting from a “speaker-focused presenter” to an “audience-focused presenter.

Regardless of their content, they know how to place the audience at the story’s center while guiding them to the solution they need. They leverage their knowledge and expertise with the right mix of humor and empathy to build trust with the audience. And they leave the audience feeling something authentic while gaining a new perspective on the subject.

More to explorer