How to connect with your audience using empathy and thumb wrestling

June 2, 2011

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!)