We've all heard the unsettling statistics of humans' dwindling attention spans. The ubiquity of smartphones and social media apps have made us more susceptible to distraction and less able to focus on what's right in front of us -- even when what's right in front us is another human being asking for our attention. For speakers, this is especially important. 

In a world rife with distraction, speakers must capture an audience's attention not just while they're on stage but before and after an event as well, if they want to make a lasting impact. Author and brilliant speaker Neen James shares not that attention matters, but Attention Pays. Here are three ways to keep an audience engaged before, during and after a presentation.

Before an event

It's not enough to prepare a speech and rehearse it. You also have to know what your audience wants in advance, and that includes understanding what they find interesting and useful. Doing research is the first step to audience engagement.

As a professional speaker, I work closely with event organizers to understand the issues and topics that are of interest to their specific audiences. This may include:

  • Doing research on social media to see what's trending.

  • Examining the activity associated with the event hashtag.

  • Knowing what topics are relevant to the audience.

One of the things I do before each event where I'm hired to speak is record a brief video --usually no longer than two minutes -- that is sent to the event's participants. The video introduces the topics I'm going to cover, while also inviting attendees to share topics they'd like to hear me cover. By doing this, I am starting my session weeks before the event. I'm alerting participants that my talk is not just another generic talk but, rather, it's going to be a talk tailored to them.

During an event

In my career as a professional speaker, I've been fortunate enough to earn millions of dollars speaking at events. Very often, I have people come up to me and ask things like, "How long have you been in the trash collection industry?" or "How long have you sold insurance?" or some variation of that question specific to a particular industry. The funny thing is, I rarely, if ever, have worked in any of the fields. Why do they think that I have? 

The reason many attendees think I'm "one of them" is because, in my talks, I strive to make it so that each example I use is in their language, in their industry. I want them to see real-life scenarios that they've likely encountered in their industry. They can identify with those examples and, therefore, they have an easier time understanding the concepts. The sharp attendees in the audience know that I've done my homework.

Not long ago, I spoke at the 401k Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. During my presentation, I brought several attendees on stage, and we role-played real-life scenarios for their businesses in front of thousands of other people in real-time. What made this strategy so effective is that we role-played live scenarios using examples from their industry at their event using their attendees. As a result, no one walked away thinking, "Oh, that wouldn't apply to me" because they just saw one of their peers role-play using an example that directly applies to their business. Role-play keeps audiences engaged because they're not just listening to someone talking, they're seeing how different scenarios can play out in their businesses.

Every example used in a talk should be specific to the audience you're speaking to. If we, as speakers, can use examples that are applicable to an audience's industry, it will be more meaningful to the audience and more likely to keep them engaged.

It's not over when you walk off stage

Whenever possible, I stay at an event beyond my keynote so I can engage with the audience personally. Sometimes, if my schedule permits, I'll hang out with participants the day before my talk, and I'll stay as long as I can after my talk to answer any questions. Why? Because I want to show people I really care about their industry. I also learn a great deal from their questions before and after the session. 

And because I know that sometimes, people can find it difficult to process and digest all the information they've heard in a given day, I provide them with a link they can use to download a professionally-designed infographic of the key takeaways I discussed in the session. This way, they can easily put the concepts into action.


As attention spans become shorter and shorter, speakers must find creative ways not only to capture an audience's attention but sustain it as well. With some due diligence and a genuine interest to address people's interests and concerns, speakers can make a lasting impression with audiences from a variety of industries by engaging them before, during and after their presentations.