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Breakthrough moments: Connecting with your audience

5 min read


I recently returned from a whirlwind vacation that included visiting three of the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. As much as I tried to “go off the grid,” forget about work and enjoy the surroundings, my mind remained on autopilot, constantly scanning for outstanding presenters. I wasn’t let down; in fact I had a couple of terrific tour guides who created what I like to call “breakthrough moments” where they truly connected with their audience.

More than a lecture about lava

My husband and I joined a varied group of vacationers on a 17-mile bike ride around the crater of an active volcano on the Big Island. Meghan, our tour guide, was a young geologist. At first, she seemed to be pushing information out to us instead of connecting with us. Once we arrived at the crater, however, she got into her element as she shared her vast knowledge about Kilauea, the volcanic rock and the local mythology associated with it. She was all smiles, her eyes were bright, and we couldn’t help feeling like we were in for a wonderful experience.

Suddenly, there was a conversation going on! Meghan asked us what we knew about the volcano, answered our questions and showed us how our thoughts and comments related to one another. She helped us engage with our surroundings by encouraging us to touch the elements of the landscape, then telling us interesting tidbits about what we were holding in our hands. Through her stories, knowledge and passion for her subject, Meghan was able to connect with all and made us hungry for more.

Continuing the conversation about coffee

On another day, we participated in a tour of the Hilo Coffee Mill. As the experience began, our tour guide and owner, Jeanette Baysa, greeted us, asking where people were from and what they knew about coffee. Did you know that Hawaii is the only state that grows coffee?

Jeanette engaged all of us immediately by starting out with a question: “Which coffee has more caffeine, a French roast or a blond?” She got our attention by revealing that, contrary to what we might expect, it’s the lightest coffee that has the most caffeine.

The conversation continued as our presenter incorporated personal stories and provided insight into comments and questions. Jeanette projected the confidence, credibility and conviction of someone passionate about her business the message she shares. This tour guide was not only knowledgeable but also human and approachable, and she really transformed my thinking about coffee and the politics of this Hawaiian treasure!

What can we learn from these passionate presenters?

Many times the little things we do as a presenter have the greatest impact. As these tour guides did, we can all take advantage of “breakthrough moments” — opportunities to connect with listeners, making it more comfortable for them to ask questions, make comments and engage with what we have to say.

Breakthrough moment No. 1: Connect before you present. Whenever you are giving a speech, take the time to mingle and greet your audience members as they arrive. Shake their hands, welcome them and ask what brought them there. Making that connection helps ensure that listeners are invested in your presentation. It may be impossible to meet everyone, but make the effort to connect with as many as you can. This simple action breaks through the invisible wall; it makes the presenter accessible to his or her listeners, invites them into the conversation and can give the speaker valuable insight into the audience’s interests or concerns.

Breakthrough moment No. 2: Share your passion for the subject and the audience. People can’t help but be engaged when a presenter clearly demonstrates her curiosity and depth of interest in the topic. When greeting your audience before a presentation, ask questions about their thoughts, questions and opinions about the subject. As you listen and respond, think of this as your chance to get people thinking and feeling. Share your personal experiences and background stories. Reveal surprising facts. If you can’t actually get them to touch and smell and taste, invite them to use their imaginations. This personal connection shows listeners that you are interested in them, and builds a bond that helps them become invested in your presentation and message.

Breakthrough moment No. 3: Continue the conversation. Before you step up to speak, greeting your guests and listening to their thoughts and ideas about the subject provides feedback that can create a third breakthrough moment during your presentation. As you give your talk, allow time to be spontaneous, adding stories or comments that people shared with you earlier, or acknowledging a different perspective. Whenever possible, use the person’s name (even just a first name). This connection makes you human and approachable, and transforms a one-way presentation into a powerful and memorable conversation.

For your next meeting or presentation, try incorporating these breakthrough tips to find common ground and create a deeper connection with your audience.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at and

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