Opinion: How do I get people to listen to me?

Keeping an audience interested in what you're saying is harder than you think

I can vividly remember my first stand-up comedy gig. I was 35 and standing on the stage of a dark Chicago comedy club in front of 40 strangers. I had just left a senior management role in international business. I had burned myself out and needed a change.  

I tried what I thought was my best material – comedy gold, in my head – but nothing was going well; I was dying. I hadn't felt this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach before. In business, I was a great communicator, I could wow an audience and even won best speaker at international conferences. What was going on here? I left the stage feeling a fraction of the person I was when I started. Everything I thought I knew about being in front of an audience was rubbished that night. 

Working in blue-chip companies, I was used to an audience that remained attentive, no matter how boring it got. What I learned when performing in dark comedy clubs full of lively and expectant audiences is that people aren't necessarily ready to listen and they will let you know if you are not entertaining them.   

But I soldiered on, and I started getting calls from my business network with requests to consult around storytelling in business. Business audiences were changing and leaders were aware they needed to learn how to better engage stakeholders around their strategies or ideas. This eventually led me back into business to change the way leaders engage with their teams.  

Today in business, the audience is way less compliant than before. You only have to look at the audience at any conference and many of the people will be on their phones. There is less reverence for authority, an organisational role or past achievements; much like with stand-up comedy, business people need to engage and excite an audience in the moment or risk losing them.   

And the level of audience non-compliance is only going to get more prevalent. I can even see it with the surge in online meetings. People are just not showing up or only doing an audio call-in. In future, it will be totally acceptable for an employee to choose the meeting they attend and leave at any point. 

It's not an easy environment, but it presents an opportunity for leaders to up their game and make sure meetings are focused, enjoyable and short. 

It wasn't much fun corpsing in comedy clubs, but I learned a lot about connecting with disengaged audiences. Here are my tips… 

Tell stories 

Don't present to your audience; use a story structure when designing your talk, and a storytelling technique to deliver it. Every story is about change and follows this basic structure: the beginning (how things used to be), the middle (something happens), and an end (the way things are now or will be). 

Be brief and simple 

Focus on your core message and stick with it. Ask yourself: 'What is the least amount of information I need to present to achieve my objectives with this audience?' And keep trimming your response so it's as succinct as possible.  

Reward your audience 

Gauge your audience's attention span. In a business presentation, assume no more than a two-minute attention span – especially if you're presenting online. Every two minutes, reward your audience with anecdotes, questions, analogies or activities. This'll help keep them engaged.  

Padraig Hyland is co-founder of consultancy The Core Story