Your audience wants to love you.
Yes, the people awaiting your speech, your toast, your lecture, your update…they want to love you and what you have to say. Despite your nervousness, the trembling hands only you know about, the sweat trickling down your palms, safely out of reach of any handshakes once you are on the podium, the butterflies performing a badly choreographed aerial ballet in your gullet, despite all that, your audience wishes you the best and wants to be engaged by you.
Forget about the old advice to imagine your audience in their underwear. Imagine your audience as a group of 5-year-olds in pajamas, eyes wide open in anticipation of the story you plan to tell them.
Interest them, and they will listen breathlessly. Bore them, and they will run amok. Furtively fingering phones and leaning in to whisper to a neighbor is the adult equivalent of a 5-year-old’s rampage.
To capture your audience’s attention early and make them your allies for the rest of your time, you have to convince them you’re worth listening to. Asking a rhetorical question, presenting a shocking fact, telling a joke, alluding to literature or history, or invoking pop culture in some way are all dependable gambits.
The best way to engage your audience is to tell them a story.
We are all five-year-olds in our jammies at heart, and a compelling story will reassure an audience that you are not going to waste their time. By the time you establish your credibility as a storyteller, you have made a connection with the people listening that will survive most of the nerve-induced mistakes or influencies you may experience.
You want to know more, though, don’t you? You want to know what story and how to tell it.
Choose a story that is relevant to the topic you are about to present. No matter how funny a joke is, unless it relates to your topic in some way, it’s a bait and switch tactic and will undermine your audience’s trust in you. Tell the one about the frog who walked into the bank and asked for a loan if you are going to talk about fiduciary matters, but not if your speech is about the future of bass fishing.
Choose a personal story. You don’t have to share a deeply personal tale, but at least share a story in which you have a stake. If it’s not your story, tell how you came to know it and why you chose to share it.
Choose a story you can tell fluently and clearly. Of course you will practice before you stand up in front of your audience. Try telling the story in different ways until you know just the right words to use for maximum impact.
Choose a story that builds up people, inspires people, touches people, makes people laugh, or all of the above. Telling a story that tears people down will make your audience embarrassed for you and they not only won’t listen to anything else you have to say, they will not look you in the eye while you say it.
A well-told story is a gift, and like the best gifts, it will make your audience appreciate you and want to thank you.
They will thank you by listening to you.