How to Engage an Audience When Public Speaking

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "TED Talks" by Chris Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

What makes a great speech? What can you do to deliver your speech in the most impactful and engaging way possible?

The key to keeping your audience engaged from start to finish is to, first and foremost, connect with them on a human level. In his book TED Talks, Chris Anderson provides several strategies on how to engage an audience in public speaking: Meet their eyes, drop your ego, be vulnerable, use humor, and tell them a story.

Let’s explore each strategy in more detail.

Strategy #1: Meet Their Eyes

Anderson explains why eye contact is so important in public speaking: Neuroscientists have proven that when you look into someone’s eyes, your emotions naturally sync up. For example, if you look into the eyes of a nervous person, you’ll start to feel nervous; look into the eyes of someone who is sad, and you’ll feel sad. Eye contact with an occasional, genuine smile will make your audience feel relaxed and trust you. 

Anderson’s advice: Greet your audience, choose a few people to make eye contact with, nod hello, smile, then begin.

(Shortform note: According to speech analysts, three seconds is the ideal amount of time to hold eye contact, and 10 seconds makes the other person uncomfortable. There are cultural differences to consider, however, and this is the recommendation for public speaking in America. If you’re speaking in another country, it’s a good idea to research what is customary there.)

Strategy #2: Drop Your Ego

If the audience senses that you’re egotistical, they’ll immediately dislike you and tune you out. Anderson says to avoid the following behaviors because they signal to the audience that you’re full of yourself: name dropping, sharing stories only to show off achievements, and making your speech about yourself rather than your ideas. Anderson adds that a bit of self-deprecation can go a long way.

(Shortform note: All speeches have three components: the speaker, the audience, and the message. Of these three, the speaker is the least important. Keep this in mind as you write your speech (pay attention to how much you talk about yourself versus your ideas) and also let it take the pressure off as you’re speaking. Use this mantra: “message over messenger.”)

Strategy #3: Be Vulnerable

Being vulnerable with your audience is a symbolic way of showing that you’re not armed or dangerous. Anderson says that when you’re vulnerable, you show your human side and invite connection. To do this, share a time when you experienced failure or embarrassed yourself, and explain what you learned from it. Or express a deep fear and reveal how it influences your behavior. 

While Anderson encourages vulnerability, he strongly warns against faking it, as this will cause your audience to feel manipulated and angry. Ask yourself if what you’re sharing is helpful to the audience, or if your goal is to elicit a response. The former is genuine vulnerability, and the latter is manipulation.

(Shortform note: In The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown makes a distinction between vulnerability and oversharing. Vulnerability is appropriate to the conversation and relationship, and oversharing isn’t—rather than feeling compassion, the recipient of oversharing feels uncomfortable. If you’re unsure whether your vulnerable moment is actually an overshare, ask yourself two questions: 1) Is this share in service to the audience, or is it in service to me?, and 2) Is this share appropriate for strangers to hear, or is it best saved for a close relationship?)

Strategy #4: Use Humor

Humor is a great tool for connection. We naturally like people who make us laugh because when you’re in on the same joke, you feel like you’re on the same team. If humor is one of your strengths, Anderson recommends you use it. Even if your speech is about a serious topic, he says you can use humor in the beginning to connect with your audience before transitioning into the serious stuff. (Shortform note: In dramatic films, humor is often used as a way to approach uncomfortable topics. Audiences also appreciate that humor gives them the opportunity to exhale and release tension during long periods of seriousness.)

Funny stories and anecdotes work well, but stay away from scripted jokes, puns, and sarcasm. Additionally, jokes that are at the expense of another person make the audience cringe. He advises that you never joke about gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, or politics—it’s too easy to offend or upset people in these realms. Finally, Anderson says if you know you aren’t funny, don’t try to be. A failed attempt at humor is worse than no humor at all. If this is you, he says to use another strategy for connection instead.

(Shortform note: If you include a funny story in your speech, don’t announce it to your audience. For some inexplicable reason, the simple act of starting with, “Here’s a funny story,” almost always ensures that the story won’t receive laughs. Instead, tell the story with no setup; if it is funny, the surprise will make the story even funnier. If it’s not funny, then there’s no expectation to meet or disappointment to navigate.)

Strategy #5: Tell Them a Story

Anderson says one of the easiest ways to connect with an audience is to tell a story. Everyone loves stories—they inspire curiosity, encourage empathy, and induce relaxation. When an audience recognizes that a story is being told, they immediately relax because it doesn’t take mental effort to listen to a story. Anderson recommends using stories at any time during your speech: Use them in the beginning to introduce your topic, in the middle to illustrate a point, or as an ending to pack a final punch. 

Stories that are about you or someone close to you are the most authentic, but make sure they aren’t designed to make you look brilliant or heroic. Self-deprecating humor, or stories where you learned a valuable lesson, will be received much better.

(Shortform note: According to Carmine Gallo in Talk Like TED, storytelling serves an additional purpose: It provides “proof” that your claims are legitimate. For example, if you’re trying to convince your audience that walking every day will lead to longevity, telling a story about your 105-year-old grandmother walking to a job every day supports your thesis.)   

Avoid Tribal Thinking 

Anderson says that tribal thinking (discriminatory thinking against other groups as loyalty to your own) is the single greatest barrier to connection. Politics and religion are the two biggest tribes, and if you say something to misalign yourself with the audience, they’ll dismiss the rest of what you say. Anderson says to imagine the world through their eyes, and unless it’s the point of your speech, steer clear of inflammatory language that makes your political or religious views known. 

Approaching Controversial Topics

Anderson doesn’t provide guidance on how to approach a speech on a sensitive topic, such as politics or religion. While you can assume that most of your audience is already part of your “tribe” and shares your views, the purpose of public speaking is often to change hearts and minds. So how can you connect with audience members who don’t already agree with you? 

The authors of Public Speaking: Finding Your Voice recommend you take a “co-active” approach, which consists of six steps:

Establish goodwill: Introduce yourself and assure the audience of your positive intentions.

Find common ground: Present and discuss values and goals that both sides share.

Explain your position: You’re not trying to persuade the other side yet; rather, you are giving reasons for why you believe what you do. This is a good opportunity for storytelling.

Cite authority figures that the other side respects: The source is often as important as the information. Discuss where the other side has agreed with your view.

Set small, reasonable goals: Major change rarely happens overnight; it usually happens in increments. Aim to convince the other side to take one step in your direction.

Acknowledge the validity of their viewpoint: Discuss a few contentions that the other side has with your view and why they are valid. You should still maintain your position, but don’t dismiss their concerns. 
How to Engage an Audience When Public Speaking

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chris Anderson's "TED Talks" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full TED Talks summary :

  • A nuts-and-bolts guide to public speaking that takes you from the initial idea to your final bow
  • TED curator Chris Anderson's public speaking advice on everything from scripting to wardrobe
  • A comparison of Anderson's advice to that of other public speaking experts

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.