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Speaking Tips: Great Public Speaking How To Hold An Audience

Updated on August 4, 2017

Think in pictures and let the words flow automatically

The author presenting a true and tried story to a big Probus audience in early 2010
The author presenting a true and tried story to a big Probus audience in early 2010

Public Speaking Clubs and Classes Don't Prepare You for Longer Speeches

Welcome to Speaking Tips: Great Public Speaking - How to Hold and Audience.

When you join a class to learn great public speaking the chances are you’ll never get the opportunity to speak for more than ten minutes or so at one given time. This is simply because there are others involved and everybody needs to have a turn. This means that in a two-hour class containing some ten to a dozen people, you might get a couple of chances to speak for five minutes. So how are you going to develop the skills to hold an audience for perhaps thirty, forty, fifty minutes – even a hour! as could well be expected of you if you wish to become a well-known public speaker?

They don't want ten minutes of your time: they want an hour!

Let us face it. When you’re invited along to speak at your local Rotary or Lions Club they’ll expect you to speak for twenty to thirty minutes. If the same invitation comes from a non-dinner event, such as a Probus club, or a big Seniors group, you’ll be expected to go for fifty minutes. Not only that, you’ll be expected to keep them interested for the whole time. If you can’t, you won’t be invited back again. And if you’re not in that category of “Let’s have this guy back again,” you won’t get the word-of-mouth referrals which will kick off your career as a speaker.

Learn Public Speaking


So let’s have a look at some of the essentials as far as keeping an audience riveted for, say, an hour.   Oh, and remember, if just one person in that audience turns to another to tell him or her something, in other words they’re talking when you speak, then you are not performing at your best.    Likewise, if one person nods off to sleep – except maybe in a retirement village or nursing home – then you are not coming over as that riveting speaker you aspire to be.   Cruel to mention it, but true.

How to Hold an Audience - You'll know when you're doing it right

If, on the other hand, at the end of that great public speaking presentation people hurry forward to talk with you, perhaps to congratulate you on your speech or story, to ask for your card, or say, “We must have you back.” You’ll know that you’ve done well. You’ll know that you’ve done well, anyway, by the feelings you have inside as you wrap up with your final few sentences.

Okay, so what are some of the pre-requsites for keeping them so interested that they’re glued to their seats, eyes affixed on you, responding to everything you do in a positive way?

Speaking Tips: Content and Delivery are of Equal Value in a Speech or Story

It goes without saying (strange phrase that, for everybody then goes on to say it) It goes without saying that your subject must be of interest to the audience. That’s essential. It is equally important that your delivery – which as I’ve said in a previous Hub – is excellent, matching what you’re saying. But there is something else again. It isn’t quite as essential as these two but it does help a great deal, especially in the longer-type presentation: audience participation. In learning how to hold an audience, we need to exercise this.

So what are some of the ways this can be done?


Your career as a speaker


It does not have to be complicated.   Just asking a question and asking for a show of hands is one way; probably the simplest and most effective way.   Or you could ask a question and when the hands go up, ask just one member of the audience a further question.   I do that in some of my longer – forty-five to fifty-minute presentations – and I do it early: within the first few minutes.   Let me give you an example of part of my presentation on the early history of MacQuarie Island and then my come back.   It’s a presentation I’ve done at least a hundred times, and it hasn’t failed yet.

Ask 'em questions. But be sure that they can answer at least some of them

“Anyone here been to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand?”

You’re wise to ask a question you anticipate you’ll get a goodly number in your audience can respond with a positive. (With an East Coast Australian Audience this is a safe question)

Out of an audience of, say, sixty people, up go a dozen hands. Then I say,”

“Would you say it’s a beautiful place?”

“Yes,” “Terrific” “Wonderful place.” a few say. I focus on just one, someone near the front.

“It was beautiful then, too. Trouble was the Maoris weren’t friendly.” (a pause) “They would invite you to dinner.” (gets a laugh because most in the audience are aware that the New Zealand natives back in 1810 were renowned as cannibals)

If you want great public speaking don't stand behind a written speech and read it - unless you're a politician

Throughout the presentation, not too much, but here and there, you ask the audience other questions that at least some of them can answer. If no answer comes, you simply provide it. You can joss with them a little, “I thought you people were historians?”

What I’m saying here is avoid the long diatribe. Be real. Be there. Really learn public speaking. Don’t hide behind a written speech and read it. Know your stuff. Sure, you’ll come across as a little larger than life. You need to, especially if the audience is big. But you won’t find this hard because you’ll be feeding off, or at least revitalized, by their energy, their enthusiasm for what you’re on about.

By letting them into the action, they'll love you for it

So this is how to hold an audience. This is how to develop your career as a speaker. You’re presenting the speech or telling the story, but you are letting them into the action, albeit only here and there. But that little ‘here and there’ makes all the difference in the world. Try it. It works.

I hope you both enjoyed and gained something from Speaking Tips.

Keep smiling



Submit a Comment

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Good advice, but why the initial attack on public speaking groups? The same advice you give for a longer speech is what Toastmasters teaches for shorter speeches, and I can attest to the fact that the same strategies work, not matter the length of your speech.

    My concern is that readers of this article will come away thinking that they should not join a public speaking group. I trust that this was not your intent.

  • profile image

    Tusitala Tom 

    8 years ago

    Hi, Simon,

    Thank you for the feedback. I appreciate it. This is the first of my hubs where this type of debate has eventated and it's quite gratifying. I should explain that 90% of the presentations I do outside of the Toastmasters' environment (Yes I'm a member for about the fifth time, and have probably had 20 years with them entotal) are stories; real events from life for the most part. Hence the need for continuity.

    655 invitations to speak and nearly 36,000 people spoken to over the past fifteen years, with a high percentage of these groups asking me back again (several half-a-dozen times or more) indicates I'm doing it right

    And no, Simon, I not a professionally paid speaker. You sound like you maybe such. If so, could you let me know if you have a website, so I can take a look.

    Thanks again,


  • profile image

    Simon Raybould 

    8 years ago

    I think Richard's right.... and (with respect) if he's missed the point, that's your problem as an author, not his point as a reader. Apply the principles you espouse for your speaker in your article to the article itself! :)

    That said, a series of mini-presentations strung together can work very well, precisely because of the continual summing up. There's a lot of research suggesting that people pay attention at the beginning and end of a presentation - and using a series of mini-presentations (skillfully!) can therefore keep audience's attention levels higher for longer.

    I absolutely take your general point that things like Toastmasters can't train you for 'real life' presenting, though. The artificiality of the time-limit is one of the reasons that I hesitate to recommend TM to my clients.

    There's always the opposite problem too - if you've said all that needs to be said in your presentation in eight minutes, why speak for ten!!?!? ;)

    Cheers..... Simon

  • profile image

    Tom Ware 

    8 years ago


    I think you've missed the point. I have been presenting forty to sixty minute presentations without stringing together a series of five and ten minute speeches for around three decades.

    Certainly I would not recommend the practice of stringing together short speeches unless they all fall within the parameters of a specific purpose and particular theme. Even then, one would have to be careful not to sound as if one is 'rounding up' or 'summarising' as each segment is dealt with.

    Still, I appreciate you getting back to me.

    Tom Ware

  • profile image

    Richard I. Garber 

    8 years ago


    Once you have learned to give a five or ten minute speech you are well on your way to putting together longer speeches that will hold an audience. Just chain together a series of short speeches. The process was described very clearly a decade ago in this article by Schmidt and Miller about The Five-Minute Rule for Presentations:



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