How to Engage an Audience and Get Your Message Across

Rod Matthews has an international reputation as a leading authority on change and human performance and a highly engaging presenter. He spoke with Andrew Shaw from Article Writers Australia about how to make a dynamic presentation that engages your audience and delivers your message in a way that will be remembered, and how content writers can use these same principles to create engaging content online.

Rod, how important is charisma when you’re making presentations?

I would strongly suggest that you need both substance and style. Quite often, we ask the person who knows the subject the best to teach others. But that’s not necessarily the best way to go about it.

The best player doesn’t necessarily make the best coach. It’s important to have the substance – to be smart, to know your subject area. It’s another thing to be able to get your message across in style.


What do we mean when we say someone is good at engaging the audience?

First of all, I think they recognise the difference between being self-conscious and being audience-conscious.

There are two ways to do self-conscious – the nervous way, which is when you see someone standing up in front of a group of people, and they are worried about their sweaty palms and the heat rash coming up on their neck.

Then you can be self-conscious in an arrogant way. This is the person who is up there for their own benefit. The audience doesn’t even have to be there; they’re just spouting off!

I think people who have charisma, the people who are good with style, are the people whose consciousness is with the audience, not themselves. They have started from the premise of ‘what is it that the audience needs to know?’ This is very different from ‘what is it that I have to tell the audience?’ I think that’s the first place that charisma starts.

How can we monitor ourselves when it comes to being confident rather than arrogant?

I think it’s a switch that you need to flick before you stand up in front of a group of people. When you prepare your presentation, you should build in some sort of engagement with the audience at the beginning.

Nervous people often say to me, “Rod, I get really nervous until about ten minutes in.”

I ask them “What’s the difference between the first ten minutes and the next ten?” They say, “Well, the audience is responding to me in some way, they’re asking questions and having a conversation.”

So the obvious thing is to ask, can you reverse those ten minutes around so that the first thing you do is engage with the audience?

A good way to reduce the arrogance is to remind yourself that you are there for the audience’s benefit, not for your own. You need to make an effort to build a rapport with the audience by asking them questions first. Rapport is all about reducing difference and increasing similarity.

Is it possible to walk into a room and figure out immediately what an audience needs?

I’ve been doing presentations for 20 years and it still astonishes me how much I get out of doing a needs analysis beforehand. This means devoting time to sitting down with members of the audience and asking them, “What do you do on a daily basis?” “What makes it easy?” “What gets in your way?” It never ceases to amaze me what comes out of that – information that makes me realise I have to change what I was going to do.

How do you get that time with audience members before a presentation?

In my role, it’s part of the gig. So if a client employs me, I tell them that I’d like to come in and commandeer one of their offices and wheel people in and out for a day.

Now, I understand not everyone can do that. So if you can’t, you should arrive mega-early, and get set up and ready to go so that your consciousness is not on ‘does the power point work’ – all that’s taken care of.

Then, as audience members arrive, you can be present with them and start to do that rapport-building conversation. You can identify who you’ve got in the room, and then when you start (if the person you’ve spoken to is ok with it) you can begin with:

“You know, I was talking to Andrew just now about what we’re covering today, and one of things he mentioned was…”

Already you are sending a clear message that this is about the audience, not about the person up front.

How important is it to be a good storyteller and how can you practice it?

You’ve sort of given the answer away – it’s about practice. Having a structure for stories in your head is important, too.

Comedian Rich Hall does this wonderful schtick around the plots of Tom Cruise films.

He’s a racing car driver. He’s pretty good until he has a crisis of confidence and realises he can’t race cars any more. Then he meets a good-looking woman who talks him into being a better race car driver.

Then he’s a cocktail maker. Pretty good at it too, until he has a crisis of confidence and realises he can’t make cocktails any more. But then he meets a good-looking woman who talks him into being a better cocktail maker. Then he’s a jet pilot… We’re starting to spot a pattern here! What this reveals is that as an audience there is a number of patterns around how we most like to consume stories.

A story structure that works well is situation, task, action, result. The situation was… The task ahead for us was… What we actually did was… And the result was…

With a bit of practice, you can have structures like these in your head. When you find an incident that has created an emotional response, it’s about using that structure to develop your story.

Confident speaker

These techniques for engaging people, are they useful for sales people?

I think they’re critical for sales people. It’s a job that requires resilience. In order to develop the resilience, you have to be very careful about the stories you’re telling yourself in your own head. It is critical to monitor those stories and to make sure they are as helpful as possible.

If we have a story running in our heads, we look for evidence to support our current belief. If it’s a negative story, we look for evidence to support it.

How do you change that story?

It’s one of those things that is simple to understand, but not easy to do. You need to become aware of it. Often it takes a friend who knows you and loves you to point it out! For example, “Andrew, I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern. What I’ve noticed is…” You should draw attention to the pattern, rather than the individual incidents. Because often people are looking for the individual incidents and not seeing the pattern.

There’s a well-documented part of our psychology called attribution theory. What most of us do when someone does something that’s bad is we tend to attribute it to them as a person – they did it because they are this or that type of person, they are hopeless, not good, an evil human being. But when we do bad things we tend to attribute it to things outside of us – that was because so-and-so didn’t help me, or because I didn’t have the resources.

So changing the story is about helping someone see the pattern and then helping them to be aware of what they are doing that contributes to it.

We’ve talked about how to make a better presentation, can we use the same techniques when creating online content?

The principals are very much the same. First of all, it’s about being audience-conscious – who is it that I want to read this?

It’s also thinking about your opening phrases. Newspapers understand that most people will read the headline, they may read the next lot of large text, but fewer people will read on. If you haven’t caught people by the end of that large text, you’re probably not going to get them.

So you need that headline, then you should talk about things from your audience’s perspective in the ‘large text’, or your opening statement.

But if you’re lecturing, that will come clear in your language and people are less likely to feed through. If you start off with “Have you ever had a tough day with technology?” People are going to respond “Yes!” Then they’re more likely to read what follows.

But if you start with “What you need to do with technology is…” then people are less likely to read through, because they’re being lectured.

Bored audience

What are your four tips for creating engaging content?

The first tip would be to understand your audience. Understand what pain they have and then look for the tools to alleviate that pain.

Two would be that the pain needs to inform your opening moments.

Three is that you need substance and style, and that’s where storytelling comes in.

Four would be have something intelligent to say! The law of markets states that any commodity of which there is a high volume has a low value. When there’s lots of oil, the price drops. It’s the same with information, and at the moment there’s loads of it out there.

Make sure you aren’t putting something out just to put something out. Make sure it’s of value to your audience. Because whether you’re addressing a live audience, or online readers, they’ll quickly switch off if they’re not getting value.

We’d like to thank Rod for this insightful interview! If you’re looking for an excellent presenter to deliver your message to a live audience, get in touch with Rod Matthews to discuss your requirements. For engaging content, or to find out more about our content writing services, contact Article Writers Australia.


“Succinct, engaging
and accurate”

I’ve worked with the team at Article Writers Australia for over 2 years now. They’ve been instrumental in ensuring our articles and case studies are succinct, engaging, and accurate.

They do feel like they are part of my team – they know us so well I think I could write a brief on a Post-It note.

Fi Arnold, Digital Marketing Manager, Kennards Hire

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