Want your talk ranked #1? Make it conversational – here’s how… [PACE principles, part 3]

Pair of empty speech bubbles on a vividly-coloured background

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Here’s one of the best ways to make your speech or presentation more successful: Make it conversational.

Why does that help?

  • It makes your talk less formal, putting your content in a positive light and removing barriers between your message and your audience.
  • It lets you engage with people much more than if you used a one-way, lecture-style talk – where people feel they’re being talked at.

When you make your talk conversational:

  • Your audience feels more engaged and listened to, so is more receptive in return
  • Therefore, your talk’s more likely to be effective.

In essence, making your talk more conversational means making it more like an everyday, two-way discussion, which involves your audience more.

But don’t worry – if you don’t have enough time to involve people overtly (or you don’t feel comfortable doing that yet), you can involve them more subtly.

You can involve your audience along a spectrum

In fact, you can involve your audience along a spectrum:

  1. From subtle ways you show that you’re simply having an open and relaxed “chat” with people, so they’re more receptive.
  2. To techniques that help people think about your content, which engages them mentally.
  3. And all the way to hearing what people think about it, involving them overtly.

OK, so how do you make your speech or presentation more conversational? In this post you’ll find techniques divided into those same 3 levels:

  1. Have a chat – speak informally, so people relax and engage.
  2. Help them think – give people time (and cues) to reflect on what you’re saying.
  3. Hear their thoughts – let people have their say.

So let’s dig in


Level 1: Have a chatScroll to Contents ↑

Listed below are perhaps the easiest ways to make your talk more conversational. That’s why I’ve put them in this first level.

They’re also sorted roughly from least to most controversial. That’s because – depending on how you feel about grammar rules and filler words – you might find some of these easier to accept than others.

You might find some of these easier to accept than others

Here’s what you’ll find in this section:

  1. Use your body
  2. Choose short, everyday words
  3. Mix sentence lengths
  4. Use contractions
  5. Soften grammar
  6. Use a few fillers


1a: Use your bodyScroll to Contents ↑

Imagine you’re speaking to someone 1-to-1. To engage with the person and get your message across, I’m sure you naturally use body language like:

  • gestures
  • eye contact
  • facial expressions

In public speaking, conversational body language is similar, but there are 3 things you need to do differently from speaking 1-to-1:

  • Make your gestures bigger.
  • Master eye contact with a group of people.
  • Move around effectively (if you’re speaking on stage).

The bigger the venue, the bigger your gestures should be

The bigger the venue, the bigger your gestures should be. That way, everyone can see them, and they come across as fitting for the room. (Don’t overdo your facial expressions, though, or you’ll come across as over acting.)

If you’re speaking online, it helps if you use a standing desk, which lets you gesture more freely. It’ll even boost your energy and presence while you present.

And if you’re speaking on stage, you can engage people more by moving around – with purpose (rather than just wandering). Surprisingly, you can even combine that with effective eye contact

For example, the 1-minute video below from Jim Endicott shows how you can:

  1. Look at a person near the front of your audience.
  2. Move closer to them as you finish your point (as if talking just to them).
  3. Look at someone else.
  4. Move towards them while you finish your next point.


1b: Choose short, everyday wordsScroll to Contents ↑

In everyday conversation, people tend to use short words (which are typically less formal than longer ones). So doing the same in your speech or presentation’s one of the best ways to make your talk more conversational.

For instance, you might say:

“A few people…”

rather than:

“Several individuals…”

As the aim here’s to be more like an everyday conversation, choose familiar words too – not jargon or abbreviations that your audience mightn’t know well.

For example, you might say:

“Your bonus…”

instead of:

“Your STVR (Short-Term Variable Remuneration)…”

After all, as Nancy Duarte put it on the Harvard Business Review blog:

“If your grandmother wouldn’t understand
what on earth you’re talking about,

rework your message”
Nancy Duarte


1c: Mix sentence lengthsScroll to Contents ↑

Your talk will sound more natural (and easier to listen to)

Following on from using short words, you might think it’d help to stick to short sentences. But in fact, your talk will sound more natural (and be easier to listen to) if you use a mix of short and medium sentences.

Avoid long sentences though – they’re harder for people to take in.


1d: Use contractionsScroll to Contents ↑

Contractions are when you use apostrophes () to merge words, saying things like:

“They’ll think you’re stern if you don’t smile”

instead of:

“They will think you are stern if you do not smile”

Contractions are one of the hallmarks of natural speech

Because contractions are one of the hallmarks of natural speech, using them makes you come across as more human. That breaks down barriers between you and your listeners, so your talk’s more effective.

Want more examples? Check out just 40 seconds of the video below from entrepreneurs Marie Forleo and Laura Belgray. (Though their focus is written content, their advice applies just as much to how you word your talks.)

To play the video, please click it twice:

Video thumbnail for Marie Forleo’s video


1e: Soften grammarScroll to Contents ↑

In your talks, use the same type of language you’d use when speaking 1-to-1 with someone from your audience. That means you can ignore many of the formal “rules” of writing, like these:

Grammar rules you can ignore when speaking So you can say things like this if it suits you… Instead of “needing” to say this…
Ignore: Don’t use a preposition to end a sentence “Who did you go with?” “With whom did you go?”
Ignore: Don’t use a conjunction to start a sentence “And that’s not all” “That’s not all”
Ignore: Don’t split an infinitive “To quickly format the file you just opened, “To format quickly the file you just opened,

Occasionally, you can relax other grammar rules, too. For instance, when I urge speakers to open their talk strongly, I say:

“Start strong”

rather than:

“Start strongly” (or “Use a strong start”)

So I break the grammar rule about only using an adverb (“strongly”) to modify a verb (“start”). That’s because I want the phrase to be as short and punchy as possible, and I feel most audience members won’t notice any issue.


1f: Use a few fillersScroll to Contents ↑

Here’s the most controversial tip

Here’s the most controversial tip you’ll find in this post:

If you use just a few filler words (like “um”) in your speech,
you’ll sound natural and spontaneous.

Yet, if you’ve spent a long time crafting your content – as I hope you have – it’ll seem like you’re delivering your well thought-out content off-the-cuff. Most listeners will find that very appealing.

I’m not suggesting you should use lots of filler words

I’m not suggesting you should use lots of filler words, though. That’d distract your audience and make you sound unsure and unprepared.

If you’re like me, you’re probably sceptical about using any “ums” or “ahs” in your talk. Certainly, I felt that way a few years ago. But recently, reading articles like this one by speaking-coach Nick Morgan helped change my mind.

Still unsure that a few fillers are OK? Check out this 20-second clip from speaking-coach and veteran TV presenter Riaz Meghji. He stresses that there’s a big difference between occasional filler words and having so many that they get in the way:


Level 2: Help them thinkScroll to Contents ↑

In this section, you’ll find 3 techniques for giving people time (and cues) to reflect on what you’re saying. I’ve sorted them roughly from least to most challenging.

  1. Pause for thought – theirs!
  2. Ask rhetorical questions
  3. Let people imagine


2a: Pause for thought – theirs!Scroll to Contents ↑

When you present meaningful content, people need time to process it

When you present meaningful content, people need time to process it. So to give them that time, frequently pause for a few seconds throughout your speech.

That way, your content’s far more likely to be absorbed, and to have a lasting effect on people.

Here’s Eliza Leoni (of Decker Communications) in a 30-second clip about pausing:


2b: Ask rhetorical questionsScroll to Contents ↑

Rhetorical questions are ones when you’re not expecting a reply. They’re a great way to get people to think about your message, and especially how it applies to them.

For instance, you might say:

“If you could attract higher-value clients in your business,
how much less time might you need to spend working?”

Use a couple of cautions with these types of questions

Use a couple of cautions with these types of questions though:

  • Be sure to pause for several seconds after you ask, to give people time to answer in their minds.
  • Don’t ask lots of rhetorical questions, or you risk seeming like you don’t care about people’s replies! Instead, use a mix of rhetorical and other question types (which I’ll discuss in section 3).

In just 30 seconds, here’s a great summary of the main tips you’ll need for asking rhetorical questions:

For more tips, check out this 5-minute video from speaking-coach Alex Lyon:

Note that after you ask a rhetorical question, I recommend you always pause for several seconds – giving people time to (silently) answer. Alex doesn’t do that here, and I’d guess that’s because he’s speaking in a recorded video, which we in the audience can pause whenever we want.


2c: Let people imagineScroll to Contents ↑

Here’s another tip to help people think about how your message applies to their specific case: Let people imagine how your message can help them.

Try these 4 ways:

  • Tell stories. That stimulates your listeners’ imaginations – and puts your content into a real-world setting.
  • Explicitly ask people to imagine (or think about) a specific event or situation.
  • If you’re using visuals, like slides, keep your visuals simple so people don’t waste mental energy just absorbing them.
  • Hide your visuals sometimes

  • In fact, hide your visuals sometimes (so people come up with their own mental imagery). For instance, you can black out your slide easily in PowerPoint or Keynote. And if you’re using a flipchart, just turn the page!


Level 3: Hear their thoughtsScroll to Contents ↑

In this section, you’ll find 5 techniques that relate to getting input from your audience. They’re sorted roughly into the order you’d use them:

Wait until people’ve warmed up before you use these techniques

  1. Take a poll
  2. Ask open questions
  3. Have them pair up
  4. Run a Q&A
  5. Collect feedback

In fact, because techniques like those make people do some “work”, I suggest you wait until people’ve warmed up to your message before you use them.

On that point, I like professional speaker Michael Port’s perspective, as shown in the 15-second video clip below:

“Audience interaction should be proportionate to
the amount of trust that we’ve earned”
Michael Port

At the start of your talk, you simply haven’t earnt any trust yet!

And at the start of your talk, you simply haven’t earnt any trust yet!


3a: Take a pollScroll to Contents ↑

To get clear input (rather than just smiles or nods), asking people to raise their hands is usually easiest – for your listeners and for you.

For instance, you might raise your hand to prompt people to do likewise, and say:

“Have you ever recommended a product to a friend?”

Or, if you’re presenting online, you might follow up your question by saying:

“To answer Yes, click the Raise Hand icon…
Thanks, that looks like about ½ of you.”

Don’t overdo the number of interactions

Whether online or face-to-face though, do remember that even just answering a poll question takes a bit of audience effort. So don’t overdo the number of interactions, and make sure they add value.


3b: Ask open questionsScroll to Contents ↑

People’ll be more willing to take part after you’ve given them some value

When you present face-to-face, people’ll be more willing to take part after you’ve given them some value in your talk. So by about halfway through, you could start to ask occasional open-ended questions, like:

“What might make you recommend a product in future?
(If you raise your hand, I’ll get a microphone to you.)”

But when you present online, audiences are highly prone to distraction. So you might even want to, in essence, start (online) with an open question. Then, to ask people to respond, you might say:

“Please type your answer in the Chat box.”


“If you click the Raise Hand icon, I’ll unmute your line.”


3c: Have them pair upScroll to Contents ↑

Getting people to work in pairs probably requires the most audience effort, and the most time during your talk. So it’s not recommended for short talks, or for huge audiences.

However, if you’ve time and your audience isn’t too big, it’s one of the best ways to let people literally join the conversation. For instance, you might ask people to pair up so they can discuss a question you ask the group.

For tips on using pairs even when you present virtually, let’s hear from speaking-coach Riaz Meghji again in this 30-second clip:

For more ways to get people working together, see the links in my post about getting people active.


3d: Run a Q&AScroll to Contents ↑

Running a question-and-answer session (“Q&A”) at the end of a talk is so common, your audience will tend to expect you to do that (and will likely feel cheated if you don’t).

Run your Q&A session before your closing arguments

In fact, it’s best to run your Q&A session before your closing arguments. That way, your talk wraps up neatly with your planned ending, rather than with an unpredictable question – which might be tricky, or even hostile!

Check out what speaking-coach Diane Windingland has to say about that in this 1-minute clip:

I also have 3 tips to make your Q&A more conversational, by helping your audience to engage with it:

  • Often, people can be hesitant to ask questions, especially to begin with. So to start, help people take action after your talk by asking how they can each apply your content.
    For instance, you might say:

    “What questions do you have on using this in your specific case?”

    rather than saying vaguely (and weakly):

    “Does anyone have a question?”

  • Have 1 or 2 questions in mind to warm people up

  • In case people are still hesitant to ask anything, have 1 or 2 questions in mind to warm people up.
    For example, you might say:

    “One thing I’m often asked is…”

  • Especially online, it can help if you show a related slide while you answer each question. As well as stimulating people’s minds, that helps to stop them being distracted by their email or their mobile phone.


3e: Collect feedbackScroll to Contents ↑

Collecting feedback through an online or paper form lets your audience privately comment on your content (and how you presented it).

Your form can even ask things like:

“What question do you have now that you wish had been answered?”

That way, you can engage people even afterwards. And attendees who didn’t get their burning question answered (or who thought of a question later) still feel heard.

If you’re speaking in a small venue, you might simply give out a paper feedback form, plus your printed handout. But for bigger venues – or to stand out and look more professional – you can use online distribution, as described in the rest of this section

Link to a page where you put all the resources for your talk

To share your feedback form online, give people a link to a page where you put all the resources for your talk (like your handout, or other items you mentioned). That keeps things dead easy for your audience.

Link-shorteners help here, too. For instance, this short-link goes to my online portfolio, which contains a PDF e-book and other resources:


You can measure engagement each time you give a talk

Plus, using a shortener like Bit.ly has the benefit that it counts visits to your link, so you can measure engagement each time you give a talk.

In fact, to make it easier still for your audience, Laura Foley suggests you generate a QR code for your link (using an online tool). Then, people can just point their phone’s camera at the QR code to open your link.

If you like, you can try that here:

QR code, which goes to the link above


What was that again?Scroll to Contents ↑

I know there’s a lot in this post, so as a reminder, here are the 3 levels I suggest for making your talk conversational:

  1. Have a chat – speak informally, so people relax and engage.
  2. Help them think – give people time (and cues) to reflect on what you’re saying.
  3. Hear their thoughts – let people have their own say.


Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

What do you think about making talks more conversational? I’d love to hear your comments below.


See also

Image based on this one by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay


2 thoughts on “Want your talk ranked #1? Make it conversational – here’s how… [PACE principles, part 3]

  1. Great content, as always. This is excellent, Craig.

    My favorite thing to recommend to people for the “be conversational” part is “Speak like you talk.” I always say, record yourself and then listen to yourself. You should constantly be asking yourself, is this something I would say in real life? For me, that does wonders in eliminating constructs like “for whom,” “items” (vs “things”), etc. (Patricia Fripp hates “things”, and I understand where she is coming from – she wants specificity – but replacing the word with “items” is really no better.)

    After awhile, I found that I could detect unnatural expressions just by listening to myself speak while rehearsing. I was once working on a presentation – ironically, a presentation about making better presentations – and as i was rehearsing the part about “Speak like you talk,” I realized I had a sentence that sounded completely un-natural. Oh, the irony! It actually turned out to be a good thing, because I changed the presentation to include that as an example. “In fact, as I was rehearsing this presentation, that last sentence was originally…”

    Re: filler words, here’s an interesting paper that concludes a small amount of filler words can (I think “can” is the key word here) make listeners both comprehend you better and trust you more. I think it supports your point above.


    • Thanks for adding your thoughts – they’re always perceptive and helpful.

      Good point about “items”. Now that I think about it, it sounds quite Latin, whereas I just looked up “thing” and apparently that’s Germanic. (I vaguely recall a wise quote about avoiding Latin words where possible.)

      Great to have the PDF link, too – thanks so much for that!

      A couple of years ago, Nick Morgan (of Public Words) mentioned some research that found that “ums” could help listeners. At the time I was sceptical – not least because he didn’t share a link to the research. But in response to my comment, he posted a link. So you might be interested in his post too, if you’ve not seen it:
      Ah – Is Umming a Bad Thing?


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