5 Presentation Tips for Keeping Listeners Engaged

Published: Mar 22, 2022
Modified: Apr 08, 2024


From American Management Association

You may not be preparing to give a TEDx Talk. You may not think of yourself as a motivational speaker or even a professional communicator. Yet, every time you have a proposal to share, a solution to offer, or a case to make, you’re essentially giving a presentation. And whether your audience consists of several hundred employees, a dozen team members, or one key decision-maker, the success of your presentation depends on your ability to keep your listeners engaged.  

Whenever you give an in-person presentation, the impression you make on your audience—and your success at keeping their attention and getting your message across—depends on three factors:

Verbal: the ideas you present and how you organize them—in other words, what you say

Vocal: the quality of your voice and how you use it, including inflection, projection, and pacing

Visual: everything people see about you when you present, including your facial expressions  

These three factors work together and are equally important components of any presentation’s effectiveness. So as a presenter—regardless of your subject, your objective, or the size of your audience—your verbal, vocal, and visual elements must be in sync. More than a source of distraction, inconsistencies between what you say, how you say it, and what your face and body convey are likely to raise doubts about your credibility and create uncertainty about your message in the minds of your listeners.

As communication trainers for American Management Association (AMA) emphasize, the success of every presentation—in fact, all workplace communication—depends on a balance between style and substance. That requires attention to consistency in your message, your delivery, and your appearance.

Like any endeavor, practice brings improvement. Before your next presentation, practice in front of a mirror or, better yet, make a video recording with your cell phone. When you see yourself speaking, you’ll be able to catch inconsistencies, as well as potentially distracting gestures or habits that could make you come across as anxious, unreliable, or insincere. From there, you can work on correcting them.        

To help you become a more effective and confident in-person presenter, the experts at AMA offer the following five tips:   

1. Watch the “tone” of your face. Your facial expression is pivotal in communicating how you feel about what you’re saying and your attitude towards your listeners. Become aware of what happens to your facial expression when you are nervous. Does your face freeze up and look overly stern? Or do you find yourself randomly smirking or rolling your eyes?

2. Find places to lighten up your presentation. Putting your listeners at ease can help you feel more at ease as well. When preparing your presentation, go over the content and look for openings where you might make a humorous remark or relatable observation. Take care, however, to avoid coming across as phony. A “fake smile” is sure to provoke distrust among your listeners.

3. Consider your stance. How you stand and the way you hold your body speaks volumes about how you feel about yourself, which in turn affects the impression you make on your listeners. To project confidence and authority while standing and speaking, your feet should be parallel in the width you naturally walk from. Your weight should be forward and balanced on both feet—avoid leaning back on your heels or shifting your weight from one hip to the other. And your upper body should be nice and straight, rather than slouched, but not rigid.

4. Keep an eye on your arms and hands. In everyday conversation, it’s natural to use your hands to express yourself—and you might be someone who talks with your hands a lot. But when speaking before a group, your arms might suddenly feel heavy and your hands too hard to handle. Become conscious of where you park your arms and hands when you are not using them. Locking them into a fixed position—whether folding your arms across your chest or shoving your hands in your pockets—inhibits your self-expression and makes you look rigid or awkward. Instead, try to relax your hands at your side when not gesturing; when your hands aren’t locked, natural gestures can emerge. Also, work on varying your hand gestures. When done repetitively, any gesture becomes a mannerism that attracts attention to itself at the expense of your message.                

5. Focus on your eye contact. In Western culture, the ability to sustain eye contact with your listeners is critical. Even if people trust you and believe what you have to say, if you fail to look them in the eye beyond a fleeting glance, they will feel your discomfort and soon become uncomfortable themselves. Sustained eye contact involves your listener and actually relaxes you. When speaking to a large group, find friendly faces in the audience and focus on talking to them. Then move your focus to other friendly faces. When you think of your presentation as a series of one-on-one conversations with different individuals, eye contact will naturally follow.       

About AMA

American Management Association (AMA) is globally recognized as a leader in professional development. For nearly 100 years, it has helped millions of people bring about positive change in their performance in order to improve results. AMA’s learn-by-doing instructor-led methods, extensive content, and flexible learning formats are proven effective—and constantly evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals and organizations. To learn more, visit www.amanet.org.