At the beginning of my public-speaking career, I never involved the audience simply because I was terrified of them. I found that when I let people ask me questions midway through the talk, I'd get flustered and never regain my initial confidence level. So, I did the only sensible thing I could think of: tell people at the beginning not to ask any questions until the end. This was a bad solution, attention-wise; they'd become immediately disinterested upon hearing that the next hour was going to be an uninterrupted lecture (I'd often go for 80 minutes, earning my own private corner of attention hell). Every audience has plenty of energy that, when channeled, even if only in small amounts, always invigorates their attention levels. Eventually, I learned some easy tricks for getting an audience involved without spoiling my rhythm:
Ask for a show of hands. Not sure how experienced your audience is? Ask them, "Who here has been in their current profession for less than five years?" Suddenly, you'll know much more about the crowd. They can't gauge the response, so make sure to describe what you see: "OK, looks like about 70% of you. Great." During your talk, you can also use the audience to get feedback about your pace. Ask, "How many of you think I'm going too slow?", followed by, "How many think I'm going too fast?" You now have real-time data and can adjust accordingly.
Ask trivia and let people shout out answers. The stupidest thing for a speaker to ask his audience is, "Any questions on what I just said?" This sounds threatening, like he's daring you to challenge his authority, which many people won't want to take on. Instead, make it positive and interactive. Say, "Is there anything you'd like me to clarify?" During your talk, let the audience help tell your stories or show what they know: "Anyone here know who invented cheesecake?" Then give out prizes, decent things like copies of your book, items you know are popular with the crowd, or $10 gift certificates to Starbucks. The audience attention level will definitely rise.
Give them a problem to solve. If you know of interesting, challenging problems related to your topic, pose them to your audience. Pick problems small enough that they can be solved in 30–60 seconds. For a lecture on travel smarts, ask, "What would you do if someone stole your wallet while you were on vacation?" Or, in a talk about cooking, "How would you recover from burning all the steaks for your six dinner guests due to arrive in 20 minutes?" Be specific, be dramatic, and choose questions that have clear, direct answers, and you'll get responses from the room. Ask them to work with their neighbors or in small groups. Always give slightly less time than they need to add some fun pressure.
Every audience is different, so interaction can be risky. When you allow someone in the audience to speak, you are giving him the floor and with it some of your power. The good news is, he'll nearly always give the power back to you. Sometimes, he'll give you even more power in the form of his attention and positive energy. And even if no one answers the questions you're asking, more people will be listening to the silence in the room than were listening to you talking before the room went silent. You have, regardless of why, regained the audience's attention.
Learn more about this topic from Confessions of a Public Speaker.
In this hilarious and highly practical book, author and professional speaker Scott Berkun reveals the techniques behind what great communicators do, and shows how anyone can learn to use them well. For anyone else who talks and expects someone to listen, Confessions of a Public Speaker provides an insider's perspective on how to effectively present ideas to anyone. You'll get new insights into the art of persuasion, based on Scott's 15 years of experience speaking to crowds of all sizes.