A quick question for you, if you do (or plan to do) public speaking...

Why is it important to engage your audience?

a. To help them get them relaxed and receptive

b. To provide experiential learning

c. To help them feel that their time was worthwhile

d. To helpĀ you relax

e. All of the above

The answer, of course, is e, all of the above. Presenting great content is essential. But in order for audiences to get the most out of your presentation (and to talk about it later) they need to be actively listening and engaged, and you need to be at your authentic best.


The following pertains mainly to public education presentations for general audiences, but it can be applied to professional audiences as well.

Audience engagement facilitates learning

Your audience will learn most effectively when they are relaxed and focused. Engaging their attention helps to distract them from any feelings of self-consciousness around strangers, and from other thoughts or worries.

When audience members are engaged, they are active learners. There's an old aphorism (often misattributed to Confucius or Ben Franklin):

Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Involve me and I understand.

The more that people understand what you are teaching them, the more effectively they'll be able to apply it to their own lives. In addition, if they feel that your presentation was worth their time and effort (and perhaps their money) they will be more likely to recommend you to their friends and family.

Audience engagement helps you relax

Public speaking does not come naturally to most of us. However, as a mental health professional you know how to start conversations and to get people thinking. If you approach your presentation as a dialog with multiple people rather than as a stage performance, you will feel less self-conscious and more relaxed - which, in turn, will put your audience at ease.


Dos and don'ts to engage your audience


1. Greet people as they enter the room before your presentation. Learn some of their names. By the time your talk actually begins, you will have already established rapport with several people.

2. Begin your talk with a question or a strong statement that draws people in or grabs their attention. (BTW did you notice that this blog post opened with a question?) Examples of presentation openers:

You're going to learn a surprisingly simple, but effective technique to help your kids calm down in the middle of a tantrum.

How many of you have ever worked feverishly at the last minute, even though you knew of the deadline weeks in advance? Raise your hand.

3. Allow questions and comments throughout your presentation. Pause at the end of each segment and invite the audience's input. In case no one wants to speak up, be prepared with a question or two of your own. You may find that others will chime in. If you think that anĀ audience member might have an answer to a question posed by someone else, ask, "What do others think? Anyone care to comment?"

4. Refer to audience members by name when possible. e.g., "As Terry was saying a few minutes ago..."

5. Tell stories and give examples. People do need facts, of course, but they will more likely to relate to stories that exemplify the facts. While setting up stories or scenarios, help the audience identify with your main points; e.g., "I don't know if this has happened to you, but it has happened to me way too often..."

6. Ask the audience for examples: e.g., "What's one thing that drives people crazy about teenagers?" Note that this question is worded so that it does not require anyone to answer from personal experience. Thus people may be more willing to speak up.

7. Move around rather than stand behind a lectern. Not only does this encourage people to pay attention and follow you with their eyes; it also helps you connect with individual audience members as you make eye contact with them.

8. Wait to distribute handouts. If you have handouts (and you should - here's why) rather than having people pick them up as they enter the room, hand them out in the middle of your talk, at a time when the content will be relevant to them - for example, when you're ready to talk about the tips for managing whatever problem you've been addressing.

Not only will it focus the audience's attention on your handout at the right time; but also, as people reach for the papers, the physical movement will energize them a bit.

9. Encourage people to tweet from the presentation. Alert them to tweet-worthy soundbites. For example:

The main reason for most procrastination - and you might want to tweet this out - is not laziness, but anxiety.



1. Don't ask everyone in the audience to introduce themselves. It's a waste of time, and can be embarrassing for some.

2. Don't tell jokes unless you are experienced at standup comedy and you know your audience very well. Humor is OK - and even encouraged - as long as you don't single out other people. The safest humor is when you poke fun at yourself.

3. Don't do anything that is likely to make people feel self-conscious. Don't force someone to speak or to participate in a demonstration.

4. If you run out of time before you've covered all you've intended, don't rush through the remainder. Save it for another time.



Invite a volunteer to come up to the front for a demonstration. If no one volunteers, what will you do? Have a plan. For example, if you know someone in the audience, ask them prior to the presentation if they would be willing to raise their hand when you call for volunteers.

Break up the audience into groups or pairs and assign an exercise. Do this only if there is a specific learning goal and if participants are not likely to feel coerced or embarrassed. Have an optional role ready for those who choose not to participate.