Keeping your audience engaged

May 1, 2012
Several years ago I was invited to speak before a scleroderma support group. The president of the group thought it would be helpful ...
Tips for community outreach

By Suzanne Gilman, DDS, FAGD

Several years ago I was invited to speak before a scleroderma support group. The president of the group thought it would be helpful for members to hear about dental treatment options. I figured I could just “wing it,” so I didn’t spend a lot of time preparing anything. My presentation was going well until someone in the audience asked about a new, popular medication. Since I hadn’t done any homework, I was not prepared to answer. I was both mortified and relieved when a dentist in the audience rescued me from my embarrassment and answered the question. Has this ever happened to you?

I learned a good lesson about public speaking that day. Years later, as the vice president of my local dental society, I decided to learn something about public speaking before I was asked to present before a group again. After incorporating some of these ideas, I saw a difference in how I connected with my audiences.

As dental hygienists, you are well trained to explain prevention. You provide a valuable community service by presenting programs to schools, nursing homes, or to other health-care professionals. In your office, you may have mastered a system for maximizing case acceptance or tracking incomplete treatment, and you might want to share that with your colleagues.

Perhaps you’ve given a few presentations but felt frustrated with the result, or you’re thinking of being a presenter but may not know where to start. What seasoned speakers know is this — it’s all about the audience, not you. How do you prepare efficiently while keeping your audience’s needs in mind? What I would like to share with you is what to do before presentation day, what to do on presentation day, and how to keep your audience engaged. The late Steve Jobs, one of the country’s best corporate speakers, used some of these ideas when he spoke at the Stanford commencement in 2005, and while introducing MacBook Air in 2008.

As you prepare your presentation, contact a few of the people who will be coming to hear you. Find out what they would like to know, what frustrations they have with your subject, and how you can help solve them. Phone a few of the attendees, or if you can get a list of email addresses, do a Survey Monkey. If this isn’t possible, ask your event planner to help you get a feel for what the audience would like to know.

When you have decided which questions are the most relevant, divide them, with your answers, into three strong and stand-alone points. The common denominator of these Three Points will be your Clear Message. Your Clear Message is what you want your audience to know and do differently after your talk. You should be able to verbalize your Clear Message in one sentence. When you give your presentation, tell your audience your Clear Message and repeat it often.

When you write your presentation, flesh out your Three Points with examples, statistics, quotations, stories, and appropriate humor. Your presentation should have a strong opening, an informative middle, and a strong conclusion.

Give yourself time to practice your presentation. Practicing will help you remember your points, finish on time, and be able to recover from the unexpected, such as no one laughing when you try to be funny. Find out how much time you have, and aim to come in at 75% of that. You will lose time to laughter, questions, and possible technological glitches. You will definitely make an impression if you end early, and no one appreciates a speaker who runs overtime.

The title of your presentation is part of your marketing; it should encourage people to come hear you speak. Your title should promise information, stress a benefit, and answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

On the day of your presentation, dress nicer than your audience, and arrive early to familiarize yourself with any AV equipment you will be using. Do not play around with the equipment for 10 minutes after your promised start time. As your audience arrives, make small talk. When you start speaking, thank the person who introduced you. One way to build instant rapport with your audience is to thank by name the people who helped you prepare, or to acknowledge audience members you know.

Start your presentation with a strong opening that will pique curiosity. Tell your audience your Clear Message, and something they don’t already know that will make their lives easier. Promise solutions to specific problems, list your Three Points, and tell them how your talk is organized. At the Stanford commencement, Steve Jobs told the audience how his speech was organized. Speak loud and clear, and if you can, don’t rely on a microphone, especially if you’re doing a slide presentation.

Slide presentations

If you will be including a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, contact the event planner ahead of time to check on AV equipment availability. Bring your own computer and adaptor, an extension cord, a laser pointer, and if you’re using your own projector, a spare bulb. Do not depend completely on unfamiliar equipment. Bring handouts to use as a backup in case the AV fails.

Remember that your slide presentation should be a clearly understood visual adjunct for your Three Points, not a script you read to the audience. Information on any subject is available on the Internet, so give your audience a reason to come see you. They can read something faster than you can read it to them, so they will just be waiting for you to finish. Use your slides as a springboard for your dialogue, with a minimum of information. As you speak, stand near the projector, and make eye contact with your audience, not the screen.

Each slide should have four or five lines of text. The sans serif font should be large enough to be seen from the back of the room, and should be in good contrast colors. Make the transitions smooth; bells and whistles are not necessary. Announce your credentials instead of putting them on a slide, because then the audience won’t know whether to look at you or the slide. Put your contact information on your handout, and do not include personal photographs in your slides.

If you still need notes, both Keynote and PowerPoint have “Presenter Notes” available under “View.” Your notes will be visible on your computer screen only. When you want the audience attention to come back to you, click “B” to make the screen go blank.

Photographs should be 100 dpi and limited to one or two per slide. If you are explaining something technical, don’t assume that everyone will automatically know what you are talking about, even in a roomful of colleagues. Start out simply and build. For graphs and charts, instead of a bunch of “silly string” that is hard to follow, zoom in on one small and relevant part. When introducing MacBook Air, Steve Jobs used very simple charts. Sum up a diagram with an analogy, such as “the amount of dollars lost during this time period by treatment not completed could pay the salary of one staff member.” Audiences love videos, but make sure they are good quality. If you are using clips from a movie, be sure to get copyright permission from


Place handouts on the chairs before the audience comes in so you don’t waste time or cause distractions by distributing them. Your handout is the backup plan if your AV system fails, but don’t make it an exact duplication of your slides. Make it an outline, with fill-in-the-blanks, so that your audience still needs to listen to you.

Include your contact information (name, credentials, phone, email, website) or something your audience members want to write down, such as a prescription or the specifics of a product or company. The copies should be legible and of good quality. Leave complicated graphs and burdensome statistics out of your handout, because your audience doesn’t need or want them.

Breaking it up

Your audience will need a change of pace every six to eight minutes. Since dental professionals are hands-on people, interjecting a five-minute exercise where they raise their hands will keep their minds alert. Consider a trivia contest where the prize is a Starbucks gift card. People want a dialogue, not a one-person show. Encourage interaction — the audience wants to be a part of your presentation. If your presentation lends itself, consider a breakout session. Give small groups of about five people problems to solve within a certain amount of time. Assign a leader who will announce their solution to the entire audience.

Handling questions

Encourage questions and decide if you will take them as you go or save them for the end. Just remember that it is up to you to stay on time. If someone is getting off course, invite that person to speak to you after your talk. When you ask if there are any questions, pause for a moment to give people a chance to jump in. If no one has any questions, ask an open ended one to encourage a dialogue, such as, “What is the biggest concern you have for your nursing home patients?”


Speakers can be like mushrooms. You don’t know when you have a bad one until it’s too late. A guaranteed method of keeping your audience’s attention is to interject appropriate humor into your presentation. If your audience is laughing with you, they will listen and remember you. It is not necessary to be constantly and outrageously funny. Stories and anecdotes that emphasize your point and bring a chuckle or even a smile will leave an impression. Self-deprecating stories are always appreciated, as long as they’re not overdone. Steve Jobs used amusing life stories in his Stanford speech, and he told them with humility.

Make sure your humor is appropriate and politically correct. Never embarrass anyone, and do not put down another profession. Do not tell long jokes or stories that are irrelevant because your audience may become confused and frustrated. Don’t feel like you’re naturally funny? Keep a diary of true humorous stories that happen in your professional and personal life that are relevant to your topic. Use humorous quotes that emphasize your point, and be sure to give credit for them.


Audiences remember what they hear last, so your conclusion should be as strong as the rest of your talk. This is a good reason to practice your presentation so that you don’t end with a whimper, such as “That’s all I have time for today.” Do not start zipping through slides or talking fast because you are running out of time.

You can close with, “I would like to leave you with this,” restating your Clear Message and Three Points. A relevant quotation or anecdote can strongly reinforce your message.

John D. Rockefeller said, “If you want to succeed you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success.” From the day you start preparing your talk, keep your audience members’ needs in mind all the way through to your closing remarks. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be difficult, but if you follow a few of these suggestions, you can become a presenter who is respected, remembered, and rewarded.

Suzanne Gilman, DDS, FAGD, CC CL, is a former vice president and newsletter editor of the Tri-County Dental Society, and a former vice president of education of her local Toastmasters Club. She has a passion for organizing information. Visit her website at

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