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The Best Audience Engagement Techniques to Boost Boring Business Presentations

5 Secrets an Engaged Data Presentation Audience



This episode showcases my top techniques and secrets for getting a business presentation audience to stay engaged, entertained, and enthused about your analytics and marketing insights.

I share the two most important questions I ask myself from my audience's perspective before presenting, and three cinematic data storytelling techniques you can use to create suspense,

anticipation, and rapt attention.

It's a top-secret snippet from my upcoming book, The Ultimate Story-Driven Data Bible, now being published by Wiley! The same fabulous publishing house that brought you That’s right – The Story-Driven Data Bible is getting picked up and shipped out by the amazing publishing house that brought you Brent Dyke’s Effective Data Storytelling, Nathan Yau’s Visualize This, and the 800-pound gorilla of the field, storytelling with data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic.

Click here to get on the book waitlist to get exclusive updates, goodies, and more!

Where Lea is Speaking Next:

I'd love to meet you, in-person or online! Here are the data storytelling, analytics, digital marketing conferences and events I'll be speaking at:

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Episode Transcript


Chapter 4.8: Beast Mode Techniques for Maximum Presentation Audience Engagement

“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.”
~ Roman Polanski

Several years ago, I was pinged by my fellow analytics expert and dear friend Tim Wilson (aka Gilligan on Data aka The Grumpy Cat of Analytics) to do something I’d never done before. He asked me to co-present a session at a popular analytics conference. Now, I tend to be a lone rider on stage, so this was a stretch mission for me. Since we were sharing a time slot, it meant I had to drastically cut content from my signature keynote.

The issue was, I didn’t cut nearly deep enough, and I awkwardly realized this during the session. There was no clock in the room and my screen was too far away to watch the time.

Suddenly, Tim called out and informed me that we had gone over our time limit. Like, not a little, but way over time. I nearly froze in shock; this had never happened to me before. I groveled to the audience and sped through my remaining content. Thankfully, The audience was quite forgiving and responded warmly to our closing.

Nevertheless, I left feeling really down on myself; as a professional speaker, it’s a big no-no to run over your limit. I deeply respect my audience’s time and conference organizer’s agenda. But there was a silver lining peeking its way out of my raincloud: I didn't notice I was over time because no one had got up and left.

The next day, I conducted a post-mortem on my talk as I always do. Playing back the mental tape, I gathered two important insights:

First, I needed to prepare more effectively to streamline my content and hit my mark. And Next, to keep a clock nearby since there wasn’t one available. I did not want to earn a reputation for blowing past my time slot. But it was the third learning that gave me a lot of encouragement:
I presented at a level where my audience lost track of time.

For most conference sessions I’ve attended, a certain percentage of the audience typically “defects” in the last ten minutes or so. This is often the result of uninteresting or unclear conclusions. And if the presenter is truly boring, sometimes you’ll observe an exodus as early as halfway through.

Audience movement is an excellent gauge of a presenter’s ability to hold attention. I’m lucky to report that I typically witness very little movement during my sessions. This isn’t meant to brag; it's just an observation that tells me something is working, and I believe I know what.

When we think of social gatherings like parties, weddings, and concerts, notice that they center around one thing: entertainment. Same thing with storytelling: books, movies, and songs are all forms of entertainment, agreed?

I realized that the corporate meeting is one of few social gatherings with no entertainment of any kind. Could this provide a clue as to why we despise them so much?

I pondered, what would happen if we used elements of cinematic entertainment in our meetings? Could that lead to longer attention spans and better engagement?

Now, I’m not suggesting you do an interpretative dance at your next readout (although I did once hear of an analyst who would operatically sing his insights to his executive team to wild acclaim). I am suggesting that your meeting doesn’t have to be completely devoid of intrigue.

I studied various cinematic storytelling techniques to find out what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. Now, I have a secret. All the information in this book will not only benefit you in the conference room but on the conference stage as well. There’s something I learned while becoming a pro speaker that will help you whether you’re making it rain insights in the conference room or the conference stage.

Two Questions Your Audience is Silently Asking You

I notice something interesting in most data conference sessions I attend. The content is usually quality, and the topics are relevant to the audience. There’s a lot of brainpower on those stages!

And yet, I find myself walking away, time and time again, without a clear understanding of what I was supposed to walk away with. I feel unchanged and uninspired. Here’s the thing:

The more and more presentations we sit through and aren't moved or changed or inspired by, the more of our life we never get back.

That’s not how we want our audience to feel about our sessions, right? So, over the last 20 years that I've been attending and creating higher-stakes presentations, I’ve identified two important questions our audience is silently asking us when they show up to the room.

If you answer these questions for them, I guarantee you will be blown away by the audience's response. Let’s dive in:

Question #1: Why am I here?
As in, why should I come to your session, especially if I have a choice between you and someone else? Conferences are busy, distracting places and often have simultaneous session tracks, so why should they choose you? Why is your session a good investment of their time?

Often, a well-meaning and knowledgeable presenter gets up on stage and projects slides, yet their content isn’t speaking to the audience. They’re transmitting information, not facilitating transformation. It is answering this question that separates talkers from speakers.

The last question you want to hear an audience member ask someone else at your session is, “why am I here?” This is the best way to avoid that.

Question #2: What can I do differently starting tomorrow?

It sure is nice to hear that someone thought your session was “great” or “amazing”. But for me, as a presenter, I want to know that I hit my mark. I want to know how my presentation will help my audience in the future.

That’s why I pack my sessions with practical tools that people can get started with right away. I do this because I found that after most sessions where I was the audience, I didn’t know what to do next.

So whenever someone tells me they enjoyed my session, I reply with a gracious “thank you” and one or more probing questions like:

  • “What resonated for you the most?”
  • “What is the one thing you're going to do differently starting tomorrow?”
  • “What's your biggest takeaway?”
  • “What's something that you learned that you didn't know before?”

Doing this has several benefits. First, you make them feel that you genuinely care that they got value from your talk. Next, it helps you understand what tool, practice, resource, or mindset made a lasting impression.

Make your presentation goal that they have something new to try right away. The trick is learning how to present it in a way that they're going to remember and integrate into their work.

Focus on these two inquiries, and your next session will undoubtedly rank as more memorable, actionable, and inspirational.

How we typically open our presentations

I want you to close your eyes and imagine this scenario with a well-known story I’ve already mentioned:

You’ve finally set aside exactly two days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes to binge watch Game of Thrones. You’re all snuggled up under a blanket, you fire up the Fire Stick, and prepare to get lost in the land of Westeros. But instead of the spellbinding preview daring you to change the channel at your own peril, you see a white screen titled “Agenda” with a list of bullet points that reads:

  • “Introductory recap of previous episode
  • Dramatic, sweeping medieval events set to dramatic, sweeping medieval music
  • A few naughty bits
  • Gratuitously violent ending
  • Musical credits”

Then the screen refreshes with a new slide called “Executive Summary” with a new list:

  • “This show is about dragons.
  • The throne is made of a bunch of dead people's swords.
  • Any character you care about will likely die by the end.”

(Sorry if that was a spoiler in case you’re planning a GOT bingefest). Now ask yourself: how excited are you to watch the show? Does revealing everything this way up front make you more interested to stay, or tempted to switch to The Witcher instead?

This one isn’t hard to answer. Let’s first explore one of the ways we lose our audience’s attention the fastest, and see what alternatives are available.
How to invoke suspense

There is another underutilized and powerful cinematic technique that is also incredibly simple. But you must have the courage to try it.

I’m going to use it on you right now.

Would you like to know what it is?

I’ll bet you do…

[waits, leans forward which prompts you to lean forward]

It’s…making you wait! Was that a weird and tense reading moment or what? And it’s exactly how I planned it, by invoking suspense! Waiting and suspense are fundamental storytelling devices; whether it’s the beginning of the next episode in a high-octane television series like 24, or the simple turn of a page in a children’s bedtime story, we are a species who loves to hate to wait.

Invoking suspense by making an audience wait to hear what you say next is extremely effective for two reasons:

  1. For those who are listening, waiting triggers suspense which activates the brain
  2. For those who aren’t listening, the momentary pause alerts their brain to pay attention and then triggers suspense, which activates the brain

In an article by Kim Eckart of the University of Washington, she explains how anticipation works to activate the brain through an executive function called “selective attention”:

“‘Executive function’ is a broad term that encompasses various skills necessary for organizing information and controlling one’s own behavior. Selective attention — the ability to focus on a specific thought or task at the expense of others — is an executive function skill related directly to anticipation, because it involves knowing what to expect of an event, however small, and how to respond to it.

Anticipatory brain activity prepares for the future, making incoming information a little more predictable so it’s easier to focus attention on what is important.”
This means that anticipation grabs attention so that an audience member can prepare themselves for the future, which diverts them from anything else in that moment.

If you’re curious, that little waiting game was inspired by my friend Nir Eyal, neuroscience expert and bestselling author of Hooked and Indistractable. Several years ago during a digital marketing conference, I watched him use this exact technique to great effect and I never forgot the audience’s heightened reaction.

So the question is, how can you leverage the cinematic power of suspense in your business readouts?

Three Ways to Make Them Wait

Suspense is an extremely effective tool for keeping an audience’s attention engaged, and there are several options to use it in even the most mundane-appearing work meetings.

#1: Before A Big Reveal
As you read earlier, one of my favorite techniques is to split one of my baby storylines over multiple slides. I’ll set the stage by showing a data point with an expected result that isn’t shocking, and then reveal a surprising turn of events.

I might say something like, “When we initially looked at our paid search campaign, we weren't surprised, everything looked fine. Everything was chugging along. But when we looked a little deeper at our outdoor furniture campaign, we found something that surprised us.”

And then…I make them wait for a long beat. One that will feel almost too long, which will snap them back to attention.

Then you advance to the next slide and reveal that the landing page is losing 80% of your visitors and needs immediate remediation. Now, no one misses that point because they were secretly shopping a Zappo's flash sale instead of listening to you.

#2: After a Big Reveal
The second technique I use is to make them wait until after a big reveal. I learned this from Good Charts by Scott Berinato. In it, Scott Berinato says to use this in a situation where you might have an important insight that you want to land really hard, like the proverbial piano falling from the sky.

In the paid search example above, it would go something like this:

  • You’d still set the stage the same way with “When we looked a little deeper at our outdoor furniture campaign, we found something that surprised us.”
  • But this time, you’d foreshadow that the situation is dire, with something like, “We learned something that we believe is critical for us to address.”
  • You click to advance to the next slide immediately, and announce that “We found that 80% of our landing page visitors abandoned the page right away.”
  • Now take your dramatic pause. Boom! That is a big problem, and the pause afterward allows the gravity of the information to sink in the way you desire.

#3: Play “Guess the Outcome”

The third way I make my audience wait is to have them guess at a particular result or outcome before I reveal the answer. This is a fantastic tool if you are in the landing page or conversion rate optimization fields and you're running lots of tests.

What you can say is, “Okay, here were our two best contenders. Who would like to take a guess at which one was the winner?” or “Show of hands for A as the winner? B?”

This strategy leverages gamification to increase attention; the audience will love their playful involvement, because play activates the brain’s signaling systems and elevates the nervous system (in a good way). You relish the pause and ask, “everyone ready for the answer?”

You then reveal the answer slide and triumphantly announce the winner! The audience’s attention is now your invisible trophy for such stellar storytelling.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to data storytelling than even the actual story and the data. Doing this right is truly an art and a science, but it’s not hard. You just have to know the techniques, and put them into practice.

So how do you know you’re doing this right?

When your audience loses track of time. That’s how you’ll know.


• The three most common phrases that open live business presentations are also the most boring.
• Invoking suspense by making your audience wait is a powerful tool for snapping the audience to attention.

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