A proven way to engage audiences in the first minute of your speech is to use a check-in. When you don’t check-in, your audience may just check-out. Many professional speakers will tell you that you may never get back that audience once you lose them in that first minute of your presentation. Checking-in with your audience is an invitation to get them involved. It’s like opening the doors to say welcome, let’s talk. That moment you take to acknowledge your audience will pay huge dividends to you, that audience, and most importantly, your judges when speaking competitively.
The best check -ins are questions, aroused curiosity, or conflict. However, you should also be aware that some check-ins can cause your audience to immediately check-out from you and your presentation. For example, overused openings like: “Have you ever….” When the second half of that question does not stimulate curiosity or excitement in your audience’s minds, that check-in may be a check-out. The next time you have the urge to open with: “have you ever,” try building the curiosity you are seeking with the word:” Imagine.“
Speakers can find many excellent check-in examples in some of the Toastmasters World Champions of Public Speaking speeches. One example that immediately comes to mind is Darren LaCroix’s question while lying face down on stage. In the opening of his championship speech: Ouch, he asked: “did I stay down too long – have you ever stayed town too long.” That was one of the most memorable lines of that speech. Another excellent check-in was by Lance Miller – Do you validate.? Again, these are all questions strategically placed to open the doors to establish a connection with their audience. Notice, they all little questions that produce huge results.
Sometimes you can also connect with your audience by addressing the deliberately placed elephant in the room. David Brooks used that technique when he won the Championship in 1990. For his presentation, he wore jeans and a tuxedo. And, what did he do? He used this check-in: “in case you are wondering, some of us do dress this way down here?” His check-in was relevant to the 1990 current events and the situation in the country when the famous was becoming infamous – Sounds familiar – He did his homework, and it worked.
It’s wise to know as much as possible about your audience’s expectations and demographics, age, background, and gender. Another technique commonly used by Toastmasters and by Jazz musicians too is the call and response technique. At the beginning of the presentation, the speaker or performer frames questions to connect with their audience. For example, a speaker may ask questions related to the topic they are about to present. This technique is helpful when the speaker is not familiar with the audience they are facing. It can build confidence and quickly help establish parameters with that audience.
The more you know about your audience, their likes, dislikes, and expectations, the easier it is to establish a connection. Keeping your audience engaged from start to finish begins with your opening. Then, a strong introduction sets the tone for the remainder of the speech. At every step of the way, you must know what you want your audience to think, feel or do. Speakers must also know how much is too much or how long is too long. Speakers must also listen to feedback but go with their gut feelings. “When you want to be heard, don’t follow the herd.” Instead, take the obstacle course or the proverbial road less traveled. And when you are a speaker who is known for checking in with audiences and keep them engaged, soon audiences from all over will be checking-in to just to check you out.