In delivering a presentation, how can you be sure of holding your audience’s attention? In the absence of a Jedi mind trick, the next best thing is empathy. In holding the room, the thing that matters most isn’t your material, it’s your audience. When you’re learning your material, it’s simply content. When you’re delivering it however, it’s a message to be communicated so that people understand it. Understanding that people are the essential part of the equation is the key to holding their attention.

Empathy as a presenter

How can you connect with people in the room, whether virtually or in the real world? The answer is, by thinking of them first. They’re listening because they want to know something. You’re not in the room simply to present your material – you can do that alone at home. You’re in the room specifically to give something to your audience, think of it as a transaction. You’re giving them a sense of connection, through your material. More than anything, you’re giving them empathy.

Think of a moment when you needed to say something important to someone close to you. You wanted to ‘get it right’. That didn’t mean memorising words, it meant picking the right tone. This is empathy, it’s the glue that binds your audience to your words. In a presentation, eye-contact, off-the-cuff remarks, and a relaxed sense of warmth help you connect to your audience.

Nick Smallman, Working Voices founder and CEO, explains more.

“Talk to them, not at them” – tips on holding your audience’s attention, from Nick Smallman

1. Preparation and structure

Preparation is absolutely critical to delivering a good presentation. Plan a structure where you organise your presentation into a logical narrative. If the subject is new to you, make sure you know more than you need for your presentation. Understanding your subject in depth will lend you and your presentation a sense of expertise. Know what comes next, understand the purpose of saying a particular point, and ask yourself what feeling you should be trying to create. Remember, people don’t want a lecture from memory, they want an emotive presentation.

2. Connect with the audience

Make it clear how your topic affects the audience, and why it is important – not just in general terms – but important to them. Try to connect with your target audience, or whoever you’re trying to reach, on an emotional level. Should your topic make them feel good, or scared, or concerned? What is the wider context of your subject?

3. Talk about something people want to hear about

Sounds obvious, but talking about something people want to hear about isn’t the same as saying what they want to hear. You don’t have to dress things up and pander to their expectations, but addressing something that concerns people in some way is a sure way of getting their attention

4. Care about what you’re saying

Sometimes you can’t talk about things people are interested in, but that doesn’t mean what you’re saying isn’t relevant, or really important. People didn’t want to talk much about the theory of evolution when Darwin first developed the idea, but he kept talking about it because he believed in it himself. You might have to give a presentation to people who couldn’t care less, but you have to care. If you don’t, your audience certainly won’t. In caring about your content, your enthusiasm might make your audience sit up and listen after all.

5. Engage in conversation 

One of the biggest reasons people are apathetic, towards speakers or in presentations, is because they believe people are talking at them, not to them. Like in a job interview, you should treat presenting as engagement – talk and share if appropriate, and address the audience in a human way. Jargon is fine but only when everyone knows what it means and it’s relevant. Formal language enables precision, but avoid hiding behind it. Think of ways you can engage the audience – ask them questions, or refer to them, or offer them something pertinently relevant to them.

6. Keep it clear and concise

Practice your delivery and think about what you’re going to say, and streamline it too; you don’t have to give bullet points, but people appreciate concise analysis. Keep on topic, and don’t burden yourself with the worry of slipping up or saying the wrong thing; you can always correct yourself. Your audience are looking for human connection far more than perfection. Take your time, and don’t forget to breathe.

7. Preparation versus memory 

It’s easy to miss out a chunk of your presentation, just as it’s easy for an actor to miss out a page of dialogue in a play, and you might never realise or only realise at a point where it’s just too late. I’ve seen people become muddled in their own presentation because they’ve said the wrong word. That shouldn’t matter. The structure of your content is what needs to be memorised, not each word.

The temptation to memorise is seductive, but having a good memory is not part of presentation skills. The urge to remember a script comes from a need to feel in control of the message, but in truth memory actually controls us. It locks us into moments from the past (when we learned the material), preventing us freely engaging with the audience in the here and now.

8. Body language and tone

When addressing your audience, remember your body language should remain open, arms and legs shouldn’t be crossed. Develop a clear, open voice with clearly articulated consonants. Remember: we’re not talking about OVERarticulation here – hitting ev-er-y sin-gle syll-a-ble— but rather a way of speaking that emphasizes important words and sounds. By understanding what you’re saying, and believing in it, you’ll enjoy it. Your ideas won’t simply be heard out loud, they will land with your audience.


Being a great public speaker isn’t about whether or not you have charisma. These skills can be learned by anyone and developed over time. Practice is essential, you’re not looking to be a perfect version of you, you’re just aiming to properly understand your material so that you can connect with the people you’re delivering it to. As part of your career development goals for 2023, presentation skills are a great place to start. At Working Voices, our training course on becoming a confident presenter workshop will give you all the basic skills you need. Or, take things a step further with our workshop on becoming a persuasive presenter. Ultimately, audiences simply want a speaker who is true to themselves. Stick to that thought, and everything else will fall into place.

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