If there’s one thing you never set out to do as a leader or communicator, it’s to lose the audience.
And yet everyone who communicates, preaches or even tries to persuade someone of an idea has discovered that sinking sense that you’ve lost them. You’re just not connecting and you have no idea why.
How exactly does that happen?
I’ve been communicating professionally since I was 16 years old in radio, law and for the last two and a half decades, preaching and speaking, and over the years have become a student of what engages people and what doesn’t.
I learned the principles below because at one point or another, I violated all of them.
Here are seven factors that disengage an audience that are so easy to miss if you’re not looking for them.
1. You Haven’t Understood or Empathized With Your Audience
There is no such thing as a ‘generic’ audience; you can’t connect with your audience if you don’t understand them.
Recently I spent some time with a friend talking about a conference we’re both speaking at.
Because I knew the audience better than he did, he spent 40 minutes asking me exactly who would be in the audience, what their hopes and fears are, what they struggle with, and how he should approach them.
I was amazed by this for a few reasons.
First, my friend is a multiple New York Times bestselling author and speaks to large influential audiences all the time. If anyone could just waltz in and speak, he could.
Second, even though he has far more offers to speak than he can possibly accept, he is infinitely interested in the audiences he speaks to.
The fact that he’s so in demand, so good at what he does and that he cares deeply about his audience is likely all connected.
The more deeply you care about your audience, the more deeply they’ll care about what you say.
2. Focusing on What People Need to Know, Not on What People Want to Know
There’s a tension for every communicator between talking to people about what they want to know and talking to people about what they need to know.
If you want to draw a crowd, it’s easy to focus on what people want to know.
But every communicator knows sometimes you just need to tell people what they need to know, even if they don’t want to hear it.
That’s an especial challenge for preachers.
If you always preach about what people want to know, you’ll likely miss what people need to know.
If you only focus on what people need to know, people have a way of tuning you out.
When people tune you out, it might not be evidence that you’re being faithful (as many preachers claim). It might just be evidence you’re being ineffective.
So what do you do?
Here’s where I’ve landed. I try to discern what people want, and then I deliver what people need.
For example, few people want to hear about what the Bible has to say about money or sex.
But as a communicator, if I drill down on why God gave us instruction in this area and look for the benefit God intends to bring to people’s lives through it, I’ve then isolated what people will want to hear and can better deliver what they need to hear.
3. You Haven’t Described a Problem People Want to Solve
The problem with a lot of communication is that it doesn’t start with a problem.
Too often, communicators or writers just start.
Your audience is asking one question: Why should I listen? Why should I read further? I have problems to solve and you’re not helping me.
Counter that explicitly.
If almost always start any talk I’m doing describing a problem people face—at work, at home, in their relationship with God or in their relationship with each other.
How do you do that? Describe the problem in detail: i.e., You’re so frustrated with God because He says he’s a God of love, but you read the Old Testament and beg to differ. And you wonder if you can even trust a God like that.
If you really want people to drill down on the issues, take the next step. Make the problem worse. Describe it in such detail that people are no longer sure there’s a solution to it.
If you want to see this in action, I spend the first 10 minutes of my message on violence in the Old Testament explaining the problem and then ‘making it worse’ before I address it.
You can watch that message here.