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How to Keep Your Audience Hanging on Every Word
by Chris King

A leading child psychologist when asked to give parents one important tip that they could use to keep their children happy and on track answered, “Start everyday creating anticipation. Every child loves to anticipate — events and/or activities that are going to occur that day, or in the near future.” When I heard this, I thought that anticipation isn’t just for children. It delights and engrosses all of us, children and adults alike. If we, as speakers, create anticipation as we present, the members of the audience will be hanging on every word — in anticipation. In this article, I am going to share some ways we can accomplish this.

Tell them what you are going to tell them. This has always been one of the first suggested parts of a presentation. Prepare the audience, whet their appetite for what is coming, and create positive anticipation. I am not suggesting some sort of dry statement, for example, “Today I am going to tell you all the facts and figures concerning the past, present, and future of telephone systems.” Even if we are involved with telephone systems, words like “all the facts and figures” and “past, present, and future” immediately alert the audience members to the realization that this will probably be a long, detailed, and boring speech, creating what I call negative anticipation. When preparing this step, ask yourself how can I create a statement that will hook the audience and make them sit up and listen? To create positive anticipation, you could say something like, “Today I am going share the best-kept secrets of those frustrating telephone systems that never work the way we want them to.” Everyone loves hearing a “secret” so you have already created some positive anticipation.

Use the power of the pause to fuel anticipation. So often when we are making an important point or telling a captivating story during a presentation, we tend to speed up. We are anxious to get the words out there or deliver the punch line, but we need to build up the audience anticipation by slowing down, pausing, and letting them catch up and start to fill in the spaces on their own. So when we do speak the words, they are ready. We have allowed them to think about the direction we are going and wonder what we are going to say next. If we are sharing a story, for example, they may have anticipated an ending. If it is the actual ending, they are pleased with their own cleverness. But, if you have added a twist to end, they will feel the surprise more deeply. And, either way, if it is a humorous resolution, your audience will burst into boisterous laughter more readily than if you had rushed them.

Along the way drop hints of what is coming. A gripping mystery novel keeps our attention and builds anticipation by dropping hints, starting a scene and then switching to another scene. We can do this during our presentations by dropping hints about an upcoming story or discussion. “I know you’re wondering how I handled … I’ll get there in a moment.” “Before I tell you how to …. Let me lay some groundwork.” “So, what do you think happened next? Well, I’m going to tell you all about it.” “Why do you think … went bankrupt? That’s another story I’ll share after I tell you about …” You have the idea. It is definitely an art to build anticipation by dropping hints. However, once you start using this technique, you will feel the thrill of seeing your audience members on the edge of their seats, just waiting to hear what you have to say next. Plan a few hints and hooks as you prepare your next presentation, and when you have succeeded a few times, the whole process will become easier.

Build anticipation before your presentation. Today’s most successful speakers customize by contacting prospective audience members long before they present. When hired to give a presentation to a particular group, as these speakers do, ask the meeting planner and/or their group contact to give you the names and numbers of key people who will be attending the presentation. By key people, I don’t necessarily mean the upper echelon, I mean the people who know what’s happening and not happening, people who have definite opinions — both positive and negative, and people who are well known by everyone else. Call them and set up a time when they are willing to have you ask some “tough” questions and discuss the topic you will be presenting to their group, company, or organization. Be sure to ask them if you can quote them during your presentation or share part of their story. They will be impressed by your interest and preparation and will be sure to tell others about you. This will create anticipation for your presentation by their peers before you ever take the platform.

Remember to work on your own positive anticipation when presenting. When we, as speakers look forward to giving a presentation and anticipate the excitement, enthusiasm, and anticipation we are going to generate in our audience members, we will find that our presentations will take on a whole new meaning for us and those listening. I know that when I am going to attend a workshop and/or presentation by one of my favorite presenters, I am filled with positive anticipation.

Make sure that your audience feels that way about you by filling them with positive anticipation before, during and following your speaking.

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