5 Ways to Connect to Your Audience

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At the beginning of every semester, I ask my students to think about speakers they connect to. They might be teachers, coaches, politicians, celebrities, or friends—famous people or ordinary ones.

“What do these speakers do to make you want to listen?” I ask.

Much to my dismay as a public speaking teacher, no one tells me that these speakers use clear transition statements or cite their sources well.

“They’re passionate.”  “They’re confident.”  “They’re not boring.”

It’s an easy question for students to answer. “Great!” I say. “But how do you know they’re passionate? What do they do that makes them seem confident? How do they avoid being boring?”

Silence.

These questions aren’t quite as simple. Sometimes, the thing that makes a great speaker great isn’t eloquent writing, a well-designed visual aid, or a provocative thesis statement. (Even though that would make my job a lot easier.) Sometimes, the thing that makes a great speaker great is something more invisible: chemistry. Or as we like to talk about it: connection.

It’s kind of like online dating. Your date might be perfect on paper, but dinner is painful because there’s just no connection.

Giving a speech doesn’t have to be much different than having a conversation, but instead of a date to connect to, you have an audience. My students and I discovered that we only see traits like confidence and passion in speakers when we feel connected to them. Here are five secrets of connection we decoded from our favorite speakers (and our best dates).

1. Make eye contact.

It sounds simple because it is. In order to connect to your audience, you need to look at them—not above their heads, at your PowerPoint, or at your outline—at them. Eye contact lets your audience see that you care about them, and it shows that you’re talking to them, not at them. If you’re so distracted by your own information that you pay more attention to it than to your audience, you miss an important opportunity to engage with the people who came to hear it. The more eye contact the better; aim to spend more than 80% of your presentation making eye contact with your audience, and more if you have more time to prepare.

2. Be sincere.

Sincerity seems as invisible as chemistry, true, but there are ways that a speaker can show an audience that she cares about what she’s saying. The audience can connect to our sincerity through our voices and faces. When a voice catches and struggles through a heartbreaking story, we know the speaker is truly feeling that moment. When a speaker’s face breaks into a smile at a funny moment, we can actually see what she’s feeling. Showing the audience our own emotions invites them to feel what we feel.

Sometimes sincerity comes in our own transparency, in being clear and direct, or in admitting to flaws and failures. In Michelle Obama’s 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention, she opens with a story that describes her apprehension about raising her daughters in the White House. Her sincerity about her mixed emotions shows that she’s human; it allows her audience to trust and relate to her.

Most importantly, be truthful and show that you believe in what you say. If you’re talking about something that doesn’t inspire you, it’s likely you won’t inspire your audience–or connect to them.

3. Share a personal story.

Dating advice might tell you not to talk about yourself too much, but sometimes you need to give people context and allow them to get to know you. Who is the human being behind the information? One the best ways to connect to your audience is by revealing personal information that shows who you are and why you feel the way you feel, similar to Michelle Obama’s story about her daughters. Another example is Clint Smith’s. In urging people to use their voices, he tells three stories about the times that he failed to do so. His stories are memorable, and they invite the audience to connect to Smith’s honesty, sincerity, and experience.

4. Use “we” language.

Simple pronouns can either make your audience feel included or separated. Rather than saying to the audience, “You need to speak up and use your voices,” Smith says, “We spend so much time listening to the things that people are saying that we rarely listen to the things they don’t.” This simple switch from “you” to “we” puts the audience on the same team as Smith. In this context, we says, “We’re all in this together!” while you says, “You need to make a change.” A simple word can connect the speaker with the entire audience. 

5. Engage and interact.

Remember that your speech is a two-way dialogue, even if you’re doing 99% of the talking. Find touch points that invite your audience to be a part of your presentation. Even if you have never met your audience, you may ask a question: “How many of you have ever…” and wait for them to raise their hands. You may include them in the speech by asking them to consider an idea, remember an event, or think about a person who is important to them. You may give calls to action, ask for their help, or invite them to be a part of your initiative.

If you do know members of your audience, find ways to include them in your examples. My students and I agreed that our favorite speakers always make us feel like a part of their speech. Our favorite coaches shared the successes of our teammates, or favorite teachers interacted with us, asked us direct questions, and made us feel included. Even some of the most popular TED speakers like Amy Cuddy and Brene Brown interact with their audiences by making comments about their laughter and reactions. They understand the speeches should feel like a conversation, not a lecture.

In taking my own advice, I ask you to consider something. Think of your favorite speaker. Is it a teacher, coach, celebrity, mentor, or friend? Why do you feel connected to this person when she speaks?

My guess is that the speaker you’re thinking of uses these five connection strategies. She tells sincere stories and looks you in the eye. At the very least, I bet you picked someone who is “not boring.” And to all of you out there trying to find “the one,” I give you permission to use the same criteria on your next date.

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