6 tips to captivate your audience

Jonathan Bradshaw

CEO at The Meetology Lab

1 – Why do you think that face to face communication is still the most important skill of the 21st century, even when almost everything is becoming digital? 

If we examine our own experience, as well as explore the research, we find that not only is face-to-face interaction often practically more effective but, contrary to what we might expect, many of the communication options digital technology has given us do not replace face-to-face interaction but actually facilitate it.
For example, in terms of our personal experience I’m sure I’m not the only person at work who, after numerous emails with a particular colleague, has found that meeting them in person has resulted in far quicker understanding of the subject and a speedier decision as to how to move forward on it. Some researches shows that meeting face-to-face increases creativity, team unity, engagement and enjoyment.
Finally, perhaps the most compelling research comes from the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) which, in 2013, looked at data from over 50 years of international association conferences and found that, in the world of association meetings as least, people are choosing to meet face-to-face more than ever before.

2 – What tips would you give someone who is in front of an audience to speak for the very first time?
There are so many but the 3 that come to mind are:
· Embrace your nerves. For most people it isn’t designing the content of a presentation that is the main issue when speaking in public, it’s their emotional state in the run-up and delivery of the presentation itself. Taking ownership of the anxiety and nerves that so many people experience, as well as welcoming them as your body’s way of helping you perform better, is an important first step. Once we stop trying to avoid what are, for many people, often terrifying emotions, we can explore tools and techniques to use them to our advantage.
· Remember the audience want you to success. An obvious point is the fact that no-one in the audience has turned up to see you make a fool of yourself. Our desire to avoid being judged negatively can power our fear, and yet, when looked at a little more closely, most of us will find that those in the audience want us to perform well and have no desire to sit and listen whilst we struggle to deliver our content.
· Be yourself. I think too many people try to be someone that they are not. Learning to speak in public doesn’t have to mean changing your whole persona. Managing your emotions and learning how to convey your content is crucial but it doesn’t mean that you have to adopt another personality. Working with your natural communication style is, in my experience, far more effective than trying to create a new one.

3 – What is the secret of successful speakers? What elements do they have in common?
I think it can very much depend on the content but, again, let me focus on just 3 elements that I think are important no matter what the content is.
· They are likable. One of the most powerful psychological aspects of connecting with others, whether on an individual basis or when presenting to a group, is the ability to come across as a nice person. So, doing this within the first few seconds is a key element. Personally I always will make sure I smile a lot, thank the audience for their time and, in some way, highlight a similarity between me and the audience to establish a connection.
· They chat to an audience like a friend. Perhaps the most difficult of the 3 elements is the ability to replicate the style that you’d have if you were chatting in your most comfortable environment – with your best friend for example. Practice is the key here, and lots of it. It may include examining in more detail what we do when communicating well and exploring different ways of introducing those elements into a more formal setting.
· They deliver the content, not their slides. We’ve all seen it. A presenter chooses to use their visual backup which should be supporting their verbal output as their actual script and, as the audience, we simply witness them reading the content of their slides to us. Some of the best speakers I have seen do not even use slides but, for the average person, they are a great supplement to exceptional verbal content but they aren’t, and never should be, the session itself.

4 – How is the use of new technologies changing the way events gain and maintain attendee’s attention? To what extent do you think they help deliver or distract from an effective message?
Although anecdotal, my experience chatting to meeting planners tells me that, due to the fast-paced nature of the technology landscape as well as the differing needs of each event, it has been almost impossible for meeting planners to adopt a best practice model on how to use technology to enhance meetings. What I do hear however is that ‘enhance’ is the right word with, for example, the ability to interact with a congress digitally (e.g. via live streaming or social media), being judged to have added to the experience as well as making those who couldn’t attend in person more likely to in the future. It is a story of technology facilitating face-to-face interaction rather than replacing it.

But until now there is no data indicating how much the attendee experience was judged to have improved thanks to the use of technology.

As far as gaining and maintaining attendees’ attention I think the experience of a conference is a very different one that it was even 10 years ago. For example, these days organisers will actively encourage attendees to be on their phones as the keynote speaker is presenting as they hope they are sharing updates on social media. Attending a conference is no longer the one-dimensional face-to-face experience that it once was but I think more research needs to be done on how that affects attendees knowledge retention, engagement and performance.

5 – Regarding the venue where a meeting is held, what are the top requirements to ensure effective networking and communication between your invitees?
I can probably best answer by briefly exploring 5 bit of psychological research.
Firstly research suggests that giving people ownership of the environment in which they interact can have a positive impact on their performance. Within a conference this might result in offering numerous types of seating choice (sofa, armchair, bean bag, etc.) as opposed to forcing everyone to sit in theatre-style on generic standard seats.
The size of a room can have an impact on the level of openness of people who meet within it. A research shows that large rooms were shown to encourage people to be more open and rooms with higher ceilings were linked to increased levels of free, open, and creative thinking. One theory is that in high ceilinged rooms, individuals feel relatively unconstrained and can therefore impact on their thinking styles.
However, psychology also indicates that a room can actually be too big. Vast spaces in which people are distant have been shown to impact on interaction and levels of creativity I think the learning here is that the size of room for a networking event should very much be related to the number of people expected to attend.
The shape is important, too. If you want to impact positively on the emotional reaction of attendees to your meeting then psychology suggests that curvy rooms and furniture are the way to go, according to some neuroimaging studies.
Finally, you might want to look at bringing the outside into the meetings environment as not only have nature and greenery been shown to have a positive impact on psychological and physical functioning, but increased levels of creativity, attention, and concentration have been linked to the close proximity of indoor plants too.  However, if this isn’t possible, then don’t fret as this research suggests that even when plants are not available reminders of nature through artwork and colour have similar effects and have been shown to reduce anxiety levels, too.

6 – The process of discussion and networking between those in attendance is one of the most important moments of an event. How do you prepare for this moment? From your experience, what’s the most successful approach to networking in these situations?
I think the type of preparation very much depends on the individual. For example, some people find networking nearly as terrifying as public speaking so for these people working on their emotional state is really important. Examining our expectations or visualising success can be very powerful and are actually backed by psychology in terms of their impact. In addition using a neurological ‘anchor’ to help you reach a certain mental place can be useful – this could be a piece of music, a particular smell or even an item of clothing.
On a more practical level here are 3 suggestions grounded in psychology that have been shown to help us immediately connect with others when networking.
· Try to develop a smooth ‘non-jerky’ handshake. A research at a networking event highlighted how people who greeted others in such a way were rated much more positively than those whose handshake was rigid and unflexible.
· Smile. The psychology behind doing so is fascinating. Smiling at someone is likely to encourage them to smile too which, in turn, is likely to put them in a positive mood. So you are, in effect, helping them reach a better emotional state and that can’t be a bad place to start networking from.
· Try to highlight similarities between you and those to meet. We tend to feel especially positive towards people who we have something in common with. For example your children might share the same name, or you might work in the same industry or share a favorite author, holiday destination, shop or even your star-sign. It may sound bizarre but the psychology behind it is very strong.

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