Learning how to keep an audience engaged is one of the most important parts of public speaking. We all know what it feels like to sit through a boring speech but making sure our own presentations are dynamic and engaging can be a challenge.

To make sure that you can project yourself, your ideas and your enthusiasm to listeners in an engaging way, we’ve got five handy tips:

  1. Know your audience
  2. Make eye contact
  3. Use visual aids
  4. Make it personal
  5. Learn how to deal with questions

If you take these tips on board, you’ll be well on the way to crafting an engaging speech and making sure that every member of the audience hears what you have to say.


1) Know your audience

This is the most important tip of all for keeping an audience engaged because everything else leads on from it. We constantly change what we say and how we say it depending on who we are speaking to, and the same goes for every aspect of a speech or presentation.

With this in mind, it’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions about your audience:

  • How much do they know? The level of detail and depth required will vary depending on what the audience already knows about the topic of your speech. An audience of experts won’t be engaged if you just tell them what they already know, while a less knowledgeable audience may easily get confused by technical details.
  • Why are they there? People attend speeches for different reasons, and sometimes they have no choice. If your audience isn’t particularly motivated, for example, you may need to use specific techniques to try to energise them.
  • How many of them are there? How you should present yourself and use visual aids depends on the size of the audience. You need to adapt the techniques that we’ll discuss below accordingly.

No one speech is the same, and no one audience is the same either. Know your audience and tailor both the content and the delivery to them.

Eye contact in public speaking

2) Make eye contact

Eye contact is vital for interacting with others, whether that’s in a one-on-one conversation or when presenting to a large audience.

When giving a speech, eye contact has numerous benefits. It creates a connection between the speaker and audience. It involves the audience in the speech and makes them feel like they are being spoken to directly, creating greater engagement. For the person giving the speech, making eye contact can also help to calm nerves and give a sense of focus and direction during a presentation. It also enables you to see how well your message is being received, allowing you to adjust your presentation style accordingly. Inc.com has a great article on why eye contact is everything in public speaking. When you’re giving a speech:

  • Make eye contact with the whole audience. If you are in a meeting with a few people, this can be taken literally. With a bigger audience, make sure you look at different sections of the crowd so that everyone feels involved.
  • Keep it moving. Don’t dwell on one individual or one section of the audience for too long, but regularly shift your gaze. Try not to stare, especially in more intimate presentation situations.

Eye contact is a simple but incredibly effective way to keep your audience engaged – use it!


3) Use visual aids

When thinking about how to engage an audience, you should also never forget that visual aids can do some of the work for you. While nothing can replace strong content and an engaging speaking style, visual aids provide the icing on the cake.

These visual aids can come in many different forms, such as:

  • PowerPoint presentations. It is certainly not compulsory to use a PowerPoint slideshow during a speech, but it can be a helpful way to give signposts to the audience and create a more dynamic overall experience. You don’t want to fill your slides with too many words, but a few key facts, diagrams, or images which illustrate the point you are making can make a presentation much more interesting. Also, if you are nervous about giving a presentation, it can help to feel that the audience is looking at your slides rather than staring at you. Lifehack.org have some handy advice on how to create effective PowerPoint presentations.
  • Real objects. Using real objects as visual aids keeps the focus on you without the distraction of a screen. Just be careful as sometimes these can be cumbersome or fiddly. This technique often works best with a small group. If you are addressing a large audience, make sure the objects are large enough for everyone to see, or consider projecting them onto a screen with a camera, though this complicates things considerably. Either way, practise with your visual aids beforehand and make sure you can use them without your hands or the rest of your body blocking the view for some of the audience.
  • Statistics and quotations. These help put your speech into context while also giving your arguments more authority. Be careful not to overwhelm your audience with extensive data or quotations that are too long to follow, and always reference your source.

Ways to deploy these techniques are covered in depth in EtonX’s Public Speaking Course. Choosing which visual aids to use or deciding if they’re even appropriate always depends on the nature of your speech.

Use visual aids in public speaking

4) Make it personal

We’ve already talked about how important a human connection with your audience is in terms of eye contact, but there are also other ways in which you can make your speech more personal and therefore more engaging.

For example, you could try the following:

  • Include anecdotes. A well-placed personal story can provide a great way into a topic, especially if the audience can relate to your experiences.
  • Use humour. Humour is a great way to make your speech more entertaining, helping people warm to you and relieving any tension within yourself or among the audience. It is a good way to get the attention of an audience who may not be particularly interested in the main message you want to deliver. Remember that not everyone has the same sense of humour and that too many jokes can distract from your key message!
  • Reference recent events. Making specific reference to current affairs, whether on a global scale or more locally, helps to engage the audience and gives a context for what you say.

Some speeches are inevitably more serious than others. It goes without saying that humour or personal anecdotes are not always appropriate, but if you know your audience then you will be able to make the right judgement. It is also helpful to watch skilled public speakers and study how they use personalisation to keep their audience engaged – Tim Urban’s TED Talk on procrastination is a good place to start.


5) Learn how to deal with questions

After many speeches and presentations, the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions. How you handle this is important. Often question sections can fall flat, but you need to make sure that the audience stays engaged. If you feel your audience may be reluctant to start asking questions, it may be helpful to have a friend in the audience who is primed with a question to ask if nobody else has one. This can “break the ice” and lead to further questions.

Usually, there will be a period during which to ask questions at the end of your speech – if this is the case, make sure you tell your audience so at the beginning. When taking questions:

• Know which type of question you’re being asked. There are many different types of question, from genuine questions to attention-seeking or hostile questions, and each requires a different approach. However, you should always remain polite and thank the person for their question.
• Repeat the question. This not only allows you to clarify exactly what you’ve been asked but also lets the rest of the audience hear the question and gives you time to think.
• Engage the whole audience in your response. Although you are responding to one individual’s question, make sure you engage the whole audience in your answer so they do not become bored.

Of course, you may still face interruptions from the audience even if they know that there will be questions at the end. If this happens, deal with the situation politely and make a judgement as to whether you should address the question then and there or ask them to wait.

Although delivering a knockout public speech may seem like a daunting challenge, if you follow the advice above then you will be well on the way to giving a dynamic presentation which keeps your audience engaged from beginning to end. If you want to enhance your skills further, the EtonX Public Speaking Course is a great place to start, allowing you to hone your skills in an interactive environment and giving you the chance to practise giving speeches in front of others.

Keeping an audience engaged in public speaking