How to Engage & Captivate Your Audience Even When They Don't Want to Listen

Aaron Orendorff
Aaron Orendorff

As I type, I’m sitting on the floor outside the registration booth at the Northwest Communication Association Conference in the beautiful Coeur d’Alene Resort, Idaho.

Oh, and the WIFI here sucks. First-world woes. 😉

Anyway, I’m at this academic conference to present on student engagement in the public speaking classroom.

That might sound a bit esoteric … but it’s not!


Because engaging and captivating your audience is hard.

Any nowhere is it harder than in a classroom full of students who don’t want to be there.

You see, I teach SPE111 — “Introduction to Public Speaking” — the most fear-inducing, anxiety-ridden ten weeks of any college student’s academic life.

And the ONLY reason any of ’em are there is because they have to be. It’s required.

So … to help you overcome apathy and light a fire in your audience’s heart, here are three lessons I learned from not only writing for but being rejected by online powerhouses.

Over the last year, I’ve had the phenomenal, and often humbling, opportunity to write for a host of online powerhouses:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Fast Company
  • Business Insider
  • Success Magazine
  • Copyblogger
  • MarketingProfs
  • Unbounce
  • Content Marketing Institute
  • Salesforce
  • ConversionXL

Based on this real-world experience, I’ve put together three pragmatic lessons that apply directly to increasing engagement in the public speaking classroom.

1.  Name Dropping and Popular Culture

Entrepreneur: “The Mindy Kaling Guide to Entrepreneurial Domination

My first pop-culture-driven article drew on lessons from Kaling’s career (The Office and The Mindy Project) as a model for success. I’ve used excerpts from this article — which has been shared over 7,500 times on social media — in class to stress universal principles; most notably, the power of sources and citation.

The pop-culture angle grabs your audience’s attention while communicating valuable insights.

Here’re two excerpts:

Be passionate

As trite as it might sound, nothing trumps passion. Carmine Gallo, in his insightful book Talk Like TED, lays it out plain:

“In any language, on any continent, in every country, those speakers who genuinely express their passion and enthusiasm for the topic are the ones who stand apart as inspiring leaders.”

Gallo’s point is that while mastery of a particular skill gives people a “platform,” it’s the passion that undergirds that mastery that makes them “connect.” Why?

Because passion is contagious. People love it. …

What’s yours?

Be a gangster

This wonderful nugget comes from B. J. Novak, Mindy’s one-time squeeze and current co-collaborator. “She’s a gangster,” Novak explains, “This is not a girl who waits by the phone. This is a girl who picks up the phone and calls whoever she wants.”

Case in point, when Mindy wanted long-time friend James Franco to guest star but his schedule wouldn’t allow it, no wasn’t an option. According to Franco, “She just made it happen.”

In other words, to be successful you gotta know what you want and gotta go after it.

It’s absolutely insane how few people can actually articulate what they want. And yet, having a clear, impassioned vision for where you want to go is the very first step in getting there. In fact, as author and consultant Warren Bennis famously wrote, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Without vision, the people perish.

But being a gangster means more than just knowing what you want.

It also mean getting it.

This form is incredibly replicable. In fact, here’re two high-level examples of forthcoming articles …

“The J. J. Abrams Guide to Intelligent Online Business”

  1. Tell a story
  2. Have a master plan
  3. Love your audience
  4. Stay consistent

“The Jimmy Fallon Guide to Making Your Customers Love You”

  1. Be Authentic
  2. Focus on Relationships
  3. Play Games
  4. Stoke Social Media
  5. Spread Joy

2.  Share Your Success

Students — and all audiences — love hearing about real-world wins. And transforming those wins into applications of communication principles drives those principles home.

By writing for publishers that students regularly read, I’ve been able to build my own credibility while at the same time highlighting the importance of things like having a clear thesis, the power of outlining, storytelling, and presenting calls to action.

The same is true for your guest posting.

Social proof is powerful and by building your portfolio — often pro bono — you show your expertise, rather than talking about it.

3.  Share Your Failure

Even more than success, people love hearing about challenges and failures.

For example, my first Fast Company article — BRING YOUR PRESENTATIONS TO LIFE WITH THESE 5 STORYTELLING COMPONENTS — was rejected (or ignored) by nine other online outlets before it was picked up.

This little ditty from my own blog — 5 Lessons from a “Failed” Copywriting Pitch — has garnered way more comments and social shares than I usually get.

Sharing your failures is especially potent in public speaking, where fear is high.

Perfect example …

Last week I was down in California speaking at one of Unbounce’s International CRODay events and in my conclusion I meant to tell a story about an amazing man I met from Barbados.

What came out was “Barbosian.”

And it wasn’t just live cast via Meerkat … it was recorded!

Talking openly about my rejections and persistence inspires students to do the same.

In fact, my motto — as counterintuitive as it sounds — is: “Let’s get rejected.”

How Can You Apply These Three Lessons?


Focus on being human. People love … (1) being entertained, (2) hearing about wins, and (3) especially, hearing about failure.

Let me know your own favorite audience engaging and captivating tips in the comments.

Let’s save the world from bad content

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