When a speaker loses an audience, too often it is a mystery to him. But for the audience, it is not a mystery. The simple fact is that many speeches we listen to spend a lot of time in some theory or idea. And we as humans have trouble focusing on an abstract idea for very long before losing interest. This is one of many reasons one of the central rules of public speaking is to use lots of stories and illustrations to make sure you hold the audience’s attention.
Some speakers look down on the need of audiences to connect to the speaker via concrete illustrations. But this is a basic form of human communication. In fact, some of the most brilliant speakers in the world have acknowledged that if a speaker cannot express his ideas in concrete illustrations, then that speaker does not have a grasp on those idea yet.
The use of stories and humor should get started as soon as the talk begins. One of the problems that public speaking encounters has to do with the speed of processing. Science has shown us that the human mind can think at least 10 times faster than it can hear. That means that for 90% of the time you are talking to a group, their minds have time on their hands. If you give them a concrete story to work with, the details of that story give that excess brain power something to do.
By opening with a light hearted illustration, you capture the minds of your audience quickly. The best kind of opening story is a humorous one particularly if it is an anecdote from your past. This method not only is a wonderful way to get your talk off with a enjoyable story, it connects them to you and opens up the speaker to the audience which causes bonding. When selecting the perfect opening humorous story, use two criteria to select just the right illustration. First select a story that links to the problem to be solved by the presentation. If the problem is an abstract tone such as spiritual hunger or political theory, that can be tricky. But try to get close with the illustration, at least close enough that you can have a transition ready to take the audience from the story to the concept you wish to discuss first.
Secondly, connect your opening story and every illustration in your talk to your theme. In this way every step of the way, the illustrations reach out to the audience, rescue them from drifting and gently bring them back to the talk and what you want them to be thinking about at this part of your presentation.
You can tell if your audience is drifting. Any public speaker has looked out and seen the audience begin to lose interest in what is being said. The eyes begin to look away from the speaker. Often they will take interest in something in their lap or on their person. You might see them writing but its probably not notes from your talk. Or their heads bob or you just see them go to sleep entirely. So when you see that happen, your presentation has spent too much time on theoretical ideas and you need to go back and think through a different mix of ideas and illustrations.
A good illustration at least will keep the audience involved in the discussion. But a great illustration will actually become part of the presentation so you can tell the story and then proceed to use elements of the story as part of your next points in your conceptual talk. When that works well, you will stop losing the audience because the concrete story serves to anchor the rest of the presentation perfectly.
So learn the art of telling a good story. Any long time story teller will teach us that the heart of a good story is detail. But in a public speaking setting, a story should be brief but easy to understand. If it has humor, that’s the best story of them all but above all, it should have personality. And it should help to compel the audience to connect to the talk and understand the ideas you want them to grasp. And if that happens and you have a stronger talk as a result, you will be glad you followed the advice of experts in public speaking to illustrate, illustrate, illustrate.