How to connect with your audience using empathy and thumb wrestling

The challenge of creating an engaging presentation doesn’t end when the last slide is saved. The real test of a presentation’s success is how it is received. Much has been written about how to create a great slidedeck. Now it’s time to take a deeper look at what makes a presentation valuable and memorable to your audience.

Speak and Deliver blogIn his article, Can you speak like Oprah? Rich Hopkins challenges public speakers to connect with their audience in ways that made Oprah Winfrey a huge and ongoing success.

“What matters to us as speakers is how she did the one thing that mattered more in her career than anything else along the way – how she connected with her audience. Unlike a Barbara Walters or a Morley Safer, Oprah’s questions were most often aimed at emotional truth. As a speaker, are you getting in touch with your audiences’ emotional truth? Do you share the struggle, or just tout the result?”

Looking for a way to find common ground with your audience at the beginning of a presentation? A gracious way for a conference speaker to connect with the audience is to reference another presentation within the same event. It’s so refreshing to hear a speaker say, “how many of you caught Laura’s presentation here yesterday? That got me thinking about what I’m going to talk to you about today.” This establishes the speaker as not just a presenter, but also a participant – one of the audience.

Perspective is more than a point of view

Are you putting yourself in your audience’s shoes? TJ Walker shares this secret to a foolproof presentation: “Develop an audience-focused perspective rather than a speaker-focused perspective.” In his article How To Develop An Audience-Focused Perspective, TJ tells us:

“I absolutely believe—because I’ve seen it time and again—that the reason most presenters fall flat is because they are focused on what they want to say and how they want to say it. They rarely stop to consider what the audience wants to hear or how they want the message delivered.”

TJ goes on to examine why presentation skill are so important and the common elements that all successful public speakers share.

A little human touch

Robert ReichDepending on the event, encouraging connection within the audience itself is beneficial. At the start of every New Tech Meetup in Boulder and Denver, organizer Robert Reich takes a few minutes to have everyone in the audience introduce themselves and shake hands with the person sitting next to them. In addition to providing a great networking opportunity, attendees immediately sense that the evening is about them. This brief but effective connection loosens up the crowd, gives permission to the audience to participate in the evening’s presentations, and breaks the ice for newcomers.

Ready to get your audience up and moving? Take a lesson from Jane McGonigal at South By Southwest. Michael Trice summarizes the experience in this article on…

“Jane McGonigal’s talk kicked off with a game of MMP thumb-wrestling. Hundreds of people competed in a network of thumb war, where up to six hands at a time were joined together fighting for supremacy. After the game, McGonigal informed the crowd that more than just competitive fun, the game had offered a rush of oxytocins through prolonged hand holding. Research indicates that even this limited rush bonds people for an extended period of time, thus increasing friendliness at SXSW through game play.”

It’s all about…them

Professional coach Dieter Pauwels (@coachdieter) urges every presenter to engage with listeners by first eliminating his or her own fear of public speaking. In a video interview on KPLR in St. Louis, Dieter addresses that fear, “it’s all about mindset first, then we can talk about skillset. The moment we shift the mindset from thinking about us to thinking about the audience, the fear will dissipate.” Dieter goes on to emphasize the importance practicing compassion in order to connect with the audience. It’s also necessary to make a contribution – the audience is hungry for what you have to share. Be sure to give them what they want and need!

Remember that empathy, compassion and sometimes a little thumb wrestling will help connect you with your audience. What methods do you use? We’d love to hear what works (and what doesn’t!)

9 Responses to “How to connect with your audience using empathy and thumb wrestling”

  1. Online PHD Programs

    I really enjoyed this article. I think that you hit it spot on. Engaging an audience and making a impact is quite difficult. I love the analogy of Oprah. I think her emotional connection is what sets her apart from the other great TV personnel. I also love the point of connecting with the crowed. Some presenters might have the audience do some friendly competition while another will have them introduce themselves and create connections. There are obviously many things that can truly make a presentation successful but these are some of the best that you can do to make a huge difference.

  2. James

    I could reminisce so that my audience might understand my experience with some empathy. If it’s a painful memory that could be something to acknowledge during the presentation. I know if I say that I loved my Dad and wanted to emulate him but he would often beat me, how would the audience respond and how more or less would they listen?

  3. Rebecca Morgan

    After 31 years as a professional speaker, I’ve learned a lot about what speakers do that connects — and distances — them from their audiences. I’ve interviewed hundreds of top speakers for our series, and watched thousands. For a decade I’ve said what TJ said — most speakers only think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. Very few think about what the audience wants to hear and how to make their points really stick for them. When I interview top speakers for, I work to ask the questions I think the audience wants answered, and steer my interviewees aways from just what they want to tell. It makes for a much more interesting interview.

  4. Philip Mansell

    Does TJ Walker ever find time from his non-stop self promotion to actually train anyone? What are this man’s credentials? Has he ever been a journalist? Has he ever trained in communications? Exposure does not guarantee expertise.

  5. John Toomey

    Hi All,

    I am a successful presenter from Melbourne Australia. About 5 years ago my speaking went through the roof because I learned a deeply profound connection skill. Within moments, I am able to drop my audience out of think and into feel. From this place, I am able to connect deeply with them, at a higher self level and have a prolonged and deep connection for the duration of my presentation. From this place, I never follow a script as I too can operate from feel and follow my intuition. This way, the audience gets exactly what they are seeking from me.

    It is a skill you can all learn.



  6. T

    Your June 6 newsletter-cannot read black type on a black background, no matter if this was in the e-mail, read online or images were “displayed.”

  7. Tracy

    I think her emotional connection is what sets her apart from the other great TV personnel.

  8. ICT4d Experiences

    Often what the audience wants to hear is bitter for the speaker or it could be the speaker’s “skeletons in his/her closet” Speaking before an audience is also like letting lots of people shine a bright spotlight on you, your family, life! Considering that we all have a number of “skeletons” that we don’t want to be let out, its such a frightening experience. But to really connect with the audience is what every speaker wants. So yes, Oprah let out her childhood ghosts and she had nothing to fear. And because of this truth, people sympathise and connect with her, at least even before the speaking starts. I like the introductions and hand-shaking at beginning of a presentation, it indeed, relaxes the atmosphere and makes the new people feel very welcome.