Engage in the Conversation

As you know, if you’ve ever participated in one of our workshops, we talk a lot about the use of engagement skills, eye contact, and pausing. We say that using these skills to engage listeners in the conversation reduces nervousness, brings listeners into the conversation, and helps you avoid the hazards of a canned performance.

What does “engage in conversation” mean?

Recently I picked up a public speaking textbook written in 1915 by James Winans. The title is Public Speaking, Principles and Practice. I won’t go into the details about how I landed on a text written almost a hundred years ago, but I can say I was pretty happy with what I found in it. Winans has something to teach us.

Winans comes from the perspective that public speaking is “perfectly natural” and an extension of what he calls “that most familiar act” of conversation. That’s right in line with what we teach even today. What really impressed me, though, was his precise definition of what it means to be engaged. For Winans, engagement requires two conversational elements:

  1. Full realization of the content of your words as you utter them, and
  2. A lively sense of communication

In other words, presenters need to (1) think about what they’re saying as they’re saying it, and (2) they need to speak for the purpose of communicating with someone else.

You may be thinking that this is incredibly obvious and not worth pointing out. But think about what happens when these two elements are missing from a presentation. Without the first, the presenter may be performing something that’s been rehearsed over and over again. Or floating along on autopilot, not really thinking about what he or she is saying. Without the second, the presenter is operating in a vacuum, not responding to the audience, not adapting to the situation, not caring whether anything is communicated or not.

What engagement skills do you need during a presentation?

So, Winans is teaching us what engagement requires, what presenters need to think about, and where their attention should go to be engaged in the conversation. His ideas enrich our sense of how eye contact and pausing work as the two engagement skills presenters rely on.

We always emphasize that using eye contact and pausing are presentation engagement skills, as opposed to the notion that eye contact and pausing are simply presentation delivery techniques.

These two skills, eye contact and pausing, help presenters focus outward towards their audience during presentations. When presenters apply these skills, they see the individuals in the audience, feel more comfortable being themselves in front of their listeners, and are able to build a conversational connection with their audience. Let me give you an example. A young financial analyst told a story about giving a presentation to clients in which she had a brain blip and said, “This transaction should yield a profit of $2,000.” Because she was engaged and had what Winans calls “full realization” of her words as she said them, she was able to correct herself immediately and calm the anxieties of her audience since what she had meant was $200,000.  

When that connection is made, the audience will be with the presenter. They will be engaged. This will also lead presenters to overcome the initial nervousness that many of them experience at the beginning of a presentation.

Most importantly, presenters need to understand how to utilize eye contact and pausing for an efficient interaction during presentations. Remember, a presentation is not about making a rehearsed performance in front of an audience. That is speech making. Presentations are business communications that are more conversational in nature; they should engage the audience – sharing information, ideas, and recommendations to reach a business goal. 

Don’t forget to check our resource page for more tips on how to engage in conversation during presentations.

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About the Author: Dale Ludwig

Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission of providing the best presentation and facilitation skills training available. Since then, he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, Dale is our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. He holds a Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index) coaching certification. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of “The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined,” “The Virtual Orderly Conversation,” and Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning,” all written with Turpin’s VP, Greg Owen-Boger.

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