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

Empty speech bubble on a vividly-coloured background(Short of time? See the tips now.)

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

Why does that help? It lets you engage with your audience much more than if you used a one-way, “lecture-style” talk (where people feel they’re being talked at).

By making your talk conversational:

  • Your audience listens to you more carefully.
  • Your message affects people much more deeply.

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:

  • From subtle ways you show that you’re simply having an open and relaxed “chat” with people, so they’re more receptive.
  • To techniques that help people think about your topic, which engages them mentally.
  • 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 own say.

So let’s dig in


Level 1: Have a chatScroll to Contents ↑

These are the easiest ways to make your talk more conversational, so I’ve put them first. I’ve also sorted them 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:


Use your bodyScroll to Contents ↑

When you’re having a conversation with someone, I’m sure you naturally use various body language to engage with the person and get your message across:

  • eye contact
  • gestures
  • facial expressions

In public speaking, conversational body language is much the same. There’s just one main thing you need to do differently from speaking 1-to-1: Make your gestures bigger.

The bigger the room, the bigger your gestures need to be

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


Choose short wordsScroll to Contents ↑

In everyday conversation, people tend to use short words. 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 saying:

“Several individuals…”


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.


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.


Soften grammarScroll to Contents ↑

To be conversational, use the same type of language you’d use when speaking one-to-one with someone from your audience. During your presentation, 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 this… Instead of saying 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 “Because of that, he did well” “He did well because of that”
Ignore: Don’t split an infinitive “To firmly shut the door behind you, push hard” “To shut the door behind you firmly, push hard”

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 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.


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 developing 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 use lots of filler words, though. That’d distract your audience and make you sound unsure and unprepared.


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. They’re sorted roughly from least to most challenging.


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.


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 topic, and especially how it applies to their own situation.

For instance, you might say:

“If you could attract higher-value clients, how might that change your approach to your business?”

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! So instead, use a mix of rhetorical questions and other question types (which I’ll discuss in section 3).


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 topic into a real-world setting.
  • Explicitly ask people to imagine (or think about) a specific event or situation.
  • If you’re using slides or similar, keep your visuals simple so people don’t struggle just to work out what your slides mean!
  • 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.

In fact, because they require people to do some “work”, I suggest you wait until people’ve warmed up to your message before you use these techniques.

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


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.


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.”


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 (say, no more than a few hundred people), it’s one of the best ways to let people literally join the conversation!

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


Run a Q&AScroll to Contents ↑

Running a question-and-answer (Q&A) session at the end of a talk is so common, your audience will likely expect you to do that (and 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 raps up neatly with your planned ending, rather than with an unpredictable question – which might be tricky, or even hostile!

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

  • 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 about using this in your own work?”

    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…”

  • If you’re presenting online, it can help to 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.


Collect feedbackScroll to Contents ↑

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

The best way to distribute your feedback form is to give people a short-link they can go to for all your online resources from your talk. To help people easily remember (and type) your short-link, customise it into something memorable (rather than accepting a computer-generated sequence of letters and numbers).

For instance, the short-link below goes to my online portfolio. It was initially “http://bit.ly/2vlAmvf”, but I customised it into a much more memorable phrase:


To make it easier still for your audience, Laura Foley suggests you can even generate a QR code for you short-link (using an online QR code generator). That lets people just point their smartphone camera at the QR code, which makes their phone’s browser open your link!

Giving out a link to a web page lets you store all resources for your talk (like your handout, or other items you mentioned) in one place. That keeps things really simple for your audience (and for you).

You can measure engagement by checking how many people clicked your link

Plus, by using a different short-link each time you present your talk (even if the link goes to the same page), you can measure engagement by checking how many people clicked your link each time.

Mind you, if you’re speaking in a small venue, you might simply give out a paper feedback form along with your printed handout!


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

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