Bring Your Listeners With You

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Remember that last time that you spoke at a conference and really felt like you had connected with your audience? You were able to keep them with you for the length of your journey. You felt like they grew and were enlightened with you. There’s a certain magic to that, and there’s also some deliberate thought you can give the experience that will help it happen more often.


Set Expectations

Start settings expectations in the abstract for your talk. If you set accurate expectations, you’ll be more likely to get the right audience. I’m all for fun descriptions. Also make sure it is very clear what the subject is, the format of the talk, and the desired outcome. Use keywords that will be tipoffs, such as “with code”, “high-level concepts”, “preview of pre-release tech”, or “soft skill”.

Set expectations at the beginning of the talk. This will help focus the learners on what is to be accomplished. Even if your talk wasn’t what they had originally imagined, they will be able to adjust to a mindset more aligned with the topics that you are to cover. They’ll setup a mental bin for the new information to go in. They’ll create mental hooks that they can connect the new information you’re sharing to their previous experience.

Set expectations in the topic or activity transitions. When you change gears, state that you’re doing so. By doing this, you’ll be less likely to lose learners along the way. Just as in the beginning, you’ll set up a context for what’s coming.

Clear Definitions

The ground that you’re about to cover in your talk will be very alien to some. They may have no background in your topic. The broad spectrum of learner backgrounds is a challenge in any talk. If you want to bring as many learners as possible into unknown territory, be willing to take a moment and establish clear definitions. You don’t have to teach advanced topics from the ground up every time. Again, expectations in your talk’s abstract will help with this. But if you want to allow new learners the opportunity to file away as much useful information as possible, give some basic definitions to serve as a mental foundation.

Even though it may be repetitive for the advanced learner, it may still be useful for them as a reminder or showing some nuance in your own perspective that they didn’t have before. Once you establish the definitions and use that language consistently as you glob on new concepts in your talk, it will be easier to listeners to keep up and associate concepts more easily.

Show Variety

You will need to be able to keep attention in addition to just sharing pure information. If people aren’t willing to put down their twitter stream and pay attention, the information you are speaking into the air will go straight to /dev/null.

There is an entertainment value that can increase the total effectiveness of your talk. It shouldn’t usually be the core of your talk or main reason for people to come hear you, but it can help. Be light-hearted. Help people laugh. Smiling, laughing people learn better. Vary your voice in volume, speed, and expression to recapture attention. Spend time on engaging visual aids (the good ones really do take a fair amount of time to produce).

Let Them Go

Your learners must trust you to come with you to the conceptual place that you’re going. Be worthy of that trust. Get to assigned room and start on time. When the session time is over, end. This is the respectful thing to do. Prepare for the eventuality of bad timing estimates or technical difficulties or venue problems. Have your material available online for later.

It is good to say, “I’m over time. We have just a little more to cover. You can get up and leave if you’d like. It’ll be ok. I’m going to go quickly.” It’s better to say, “We’re at time. The material is available at Please talk to me afterward and on Twitter @jaketrent. Thank you for coming.” When time is up, wrap it up and end.

Being able to take listeners with you on a mutual teaching and learning experience is a great privilege. It takes preparation, work, and a bit of jit magic. These are a few ideas. What other ideas do you have for helping learners come along with you in that experience?