The speaker began with confidence, stayed on message, followed the presentation he had developed. At first it was going well enough, audience members listening with what appeared to be full attention, looking at him, sitting up straight, some taking notes, their faces alert, expressive. But as he continued, he noticed the beginnings of a slump, a rising wave of inattention. Soon so few listeners were looking at him that he had trouble initiating and maintaining eye focus. Some in the audience had grown restless, fidgeting and squirming, rearranging their posture. A few had pulled out documents and were flipping through pages; others held smart phones, their fingers flying.
Your ability to engage listeners and hold their attention increases when you prepare properly, rehearse effectively, and remain sharply focused on your purpose and key messages. Among the elements especially important in audience engagement is a strong opener—one that grabs listeners from the start and gives them a reason to stay alert. Another is the organization of your content; arrange your messages and support with the audience's characteristics in mind. Use an analysis of those characteristics to guide your communication strategy and the tactics that help you fulfill it.
But at times even a well-conceived and sufficiently practiced presentation may lose its listeners. Prepare for that, too.
Speakers often get flustered when they see their audience growing inattentive and may rush through the rest of the presentation hoping that they'll be able to corral whatever attention remains. But a better response is for the speaker to break a pattern of speech, movement, or slide display. Such a shift stirs attention because it is novel, different, unexpected.
A speaker could, for instance, simply pause when he sees signs of waning attention. A brief silence will cause most listeners to look toward the speaker, and in those moments of recaptured interest the speaker can again use eye focus to engage the audience. Or, if at a lectern, the speaker can take a few steps away, speak a few sentences, and then return to the lectern. If using PowerPoint in show or presentation mode, the speaker can darken the screen by pressing the "B" key or turn it white by pressing the "W" key. The resulting change in light and color redirects attention to the speaker, creating an opportunity for him to break a few other patterns to awaken audience interest.
Variations in voice as well as in nonverbal communication—your body language and facial expression—can help you regain wandering attention. Adjust the sound of your voice by varying pace, pitch, emphasis, and volume; tune each variation to the content and meaning of your words.
Maintain a balanced stance, one that allows you not only to loom large in a "power pose" but positions you to gesture effectively, a help in animating your performance. Align facial expressions with meaning to enhance audience comprehension, and infuse your delivery with physical cues of emotion and attitude.
Even if you sense that only a few of your listeners are tuning out, pull in some of these tactics to increase interest and engagement, for loss of attention and its bear of a brother, boredom, can be as contagious as a yawn. And that's not what a speaker ever wants to see.