Audience Connection Matters: What I learned at the US Conference on AIDS
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    Audience Connection Matters: What I learned at the US Conference on AIDS

    Recently, I provided some presentation coaching to the keynote speakers for this year’s US Conference on AIDS. I really treasured the experience and learned a lot from it. Both presenters were amazing people who do amazing work — work that truly is making a difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The task before them was a challenging one. Many of their 2,000+ person audience are tired and weary. These front-line responders to the HIV/AIDS epidemic are constantly fighting for resources, struggling with bureaucracy, and challenged by the very patients they serve. The keynote speakers were tasked with not only motivating their audience, but also encouraging them to seek different approaches and new paths.

    The keynote speakers did a very nice job writing presentations that addressed the USCA’s goal. However, the one part that was lacking in their drafts was the connection of their messages to their audience. They had lots of facts, statistics, and stories, but limited involvement with their audience. This type of connection is key when trying to move and motivate an audience.

    The three connecting techniques I suggested were to:

    • Ask your audience to do something. You can have them physically act by asking them to respond to a polling question or provide a comment. These actions require focus and involvement, which reduces passivity. Additionally, you can have them mentally do something by asking them to “imagine,” “remember back,” or “picture this.” Since your audience is seeing something in their mind’s eye, rather than just listening to you describe it, they become more engaged and your point becomes more vivid and lasting for them.

    One of the keynote presenters asked his audience to remember back to 1986 when AIDS first became nationally recognized.

    • Use analogies. By comparing new information to something your audience is already familiar with, analogies activate the audience’s existing mental constructs, which allows for quicker information processing, better understanding, and greater interest in the topic being presented.

    The other presenter compared the lessons she learned while practicing medicine in Swaziland to those her patients today are teaching her.

    • Focus on the relevance of your topic for your audience. This is possibly the most important audience connecting technique.  Be sure to spend time detailing the specific links between your topic and your audience’s lives. For example, one of the speakers commented: “As I am sure you all see in your clinics everyday.” Relevancy is the best antidote for apathy, and it brings with it a high level of participation.

    By employing these connecting techniques along with incredible authentic delivery, these USCA keynote presenters were able to move their audience – some to tears, but all to a standing ovation. When your topic matters to you and your audience, you must be sure to connect your message to them.