You Got Game? Play the Engagement Game to Win Clients and Engage Audiences


In the kingdom of speaking, “engagement” wears the crown. And unfortunately, he is a king ignored by many. But it’s time to embrace his righteous power and face the hard facts. Without engagement, we can’t deliver as professional speakers and trainers. Why? Because this is the era of a new marketplace defined by hyper competition where the pressure is on for organizations to increase efficiencies, drive sales and improve all areas of their business operation. Never before has there been a greater need for organizations to maximize return from their strategic training initiatives. Clients expect speakers to fulfill and deliver on this need. To do so, we must engage our audiences. But that’s no easy task. Most organizational initiatives are found to be dull and dry by the very stakeholders who are invested in their deployment.

How can we turn the engagement game in our favor when the odds are stacked so high against us? In my 20 years as a professional speaker, I’ve learned some very powerful lessons, often the hard way. Get ready to unlock the secrets of serious speaking sorcery. Here are my top tips, tricks and methods for mastering audience engagement for keynotes, workshops or training events:

1.    Leverage the power of gamification.

Gamification is the single most important component for driving audience and stakeholder engagement. Gamification is used in virtually all industries. Its primary purpose is to modify human behavior and stakeholder engagement through the proven principles of game mechanics—rewards for completed actions. For example, when you use a frequent flyer program, you are being “gamified.” You are doing precisely what the airline wants you to do: Buy more airline tickets. We play the game because we want the game rewards. This is the most powerful way to drive engagement because you must participate to get rewarded.

I have witnessed the power of gamification on an enterprise level. Recently, I was asked to help a multibillion-dollar corporation quickly save $30 million through cost cutting. The company also hired some “lean” consultants to set up over a dozen cost-containment committees. At the end of their initiative, they discovered virtually no cost- saving opportunities. When I got involved, I helped set up an internal Enterprise Social Network (ESN) that leveraged game mechanics. I created my own version of the famous “The Biggest Loser Challenge,” which was nothing more than a fun, socialized game that posed the cost-cutting objective to employees in a game format. Employees presented over 2,000 ideas that resulted in over $7 million in savings— in just a few weeks. That’s the power of stakeholder engagement.

 2.    Use a system and ask your clients deep questions.

Comprehensive pre-event forms are the foundational building blocks that help create engaging talks. In my experience, they have helped me identify information gaps to fill during prevent meetings. Pre-event questionnaires structure and determine the pre-event discussions I’ll need to have with the client. These resources are also used as the “wire frame” for my talk. This big-picture approach allows me to verify that I am on target with the client before I dive directly into a ground-up talk. A systematic process can help keep you on track to build a talk that is highly relevant to the audience in a logical and sequential way. I always ask my clients four basic questions as part of my pre-event prep:

  • Have I properly branded the initiative in a way that speaks to the needs, problems and opportunities of the audience or stakeholder?
  • Are the training objectives meaningful and measurable?
  • Have I clearly articulated the expected outcome of the training initiative?
  • Have I leveraged game mechanics and socialization to significantly improve measurable results?

 3.    Devote time to understand the audience’s unique needs.

Recently, I did a presentation for a pharmaceutical company on the future of digital strategies. In preparation for this talk, I had six two-hour meetings with their team. For many, this is quite the controversy—putting that much time and effort into a talk. But you cannot drive engagement without understanding the audience’s unique and special needs. Don’t limit pre-event meetings based on some arbitrary number. Provide as many meetings as necessary to meet your client’s strategy. That pharmaceutical company loved my talk and booked me for two more events.

 4.    It’s not about content. It’s about strategy.

It took me way too long to learn this valuable lesson. Most of my bookings are keynote presentations, stuffed with the best possible content. But my content wasn’t knocking it out of the park. It lacked a winning delivery system. Flying back from an event, I reflected on what I could have done better. Suddenly, I had an epiphany: Clients want you to deliver a specific strategic benefit, not content. We can only serve our audience and clients when we put engagement before content.

 5.    Be more than a talking head.

Don’t show up and be a babbling head in front of a room of people. Engagement requires a genuine intellectual and emotional connection between you and your audience. A speaker’s power is reaching the audience at its core. Understand their pain, obstacles and challenges by investing time in prevent discussions.

 6.    Keep it fresh. Don’t recycle.

If you are a keynote speaker or trainer who uses the same canned presentation for every audience, your days are numbered. To deliver an amazing presentation, you must have a three-dimensional understanding about your audience, and how to deliver a strategic result. Every company, industry, group and marketplace is uniquely different. You must connect the needs and problems of that group to your presentation’s message and theme. Unfortunately, keynote speaking and high-level training are not very scalable. You cannot create half a dozen decks and represent those if you expect to drive quality engagement. So, I developed a policy of erasing any presentation I give to eliminate the temptation to reuse any elements. Give it a try.

 7.    Take risks.

In my speaking practice, I do a great deal in executive leadership, creative problem solving and innovation. You can’t speak on innovation and creativity and not be innovative. So, I decided to take the colossal risk of designing and producing an innovation platform to conduct ideation sessions for my training clients. My clients loved it, but the big surprise was the toy and education industry loved it, too. As a result, I accidentally invented Hanz, an award-winning educational toy. Everyone likes to be engaged when it comes to learning. Consider designing and developing your own proprietary training tools. For me, this paid off in a multimillion-dollar way.

 8.    Pick the right theme.

Amateur speakers will often deliver a generic theme that’s funny, dramatic or motivational. Different industries, companies and audiences are best served by matching the theme of your talk to the subject matter and the audience. Recently, a company that owns funeral homes around the country engaged me. You would think that would require a somber theme. After four pre-event meetings, I discovered that a somber theme would not be the right choice, so I did the exact opposite: I made it fun and funny. Creating equilibrium between the subject matter, theme and audience is critical. Using the wrong theme will make engagement impossible.

 9.    Avoid death by PowerPoint®.

Many people think Steve Jobs was a technological genius, but his real interest was in calligraphy. He understood the power of using icons to represent complex computer functions. Every top speaker also understands this principle. Rarely do my slides have any text at all. They are simply images. This helps me tell a powerful story and drives engagement. If you’re still using PowerPoint with bullet points, I urge you to reconsider. PowerPoint overload smothers all hopes for engagement.

 10.  Embrace your passion.

Individuals are called to the speaking profession to help make enterprises and individuals better. Driving engagement is no easy task. At times, it can take more blood, sweat and tears than you have to spare, but this work is a core part of our passion. Engagement doesn’t happen overnight. Always tap into your passion to infuse engagement into your presentation.

Marshmallows Drive Audience Engagement

One of my most amazing experiences happened when I worked with a software company that wanted to teach its stakeholders the principles of innovation. We invited the company’s team to Children’s Hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the presentation. I walked to the front of the room, sat on a barstool and explained the principles of innovation in a very conversational manner. At the end of my talk, I challenged the group to teach the kids in the hospital how to invent the world’s best marshmallow launcher. It sounds crazy, but the kids had a blast, and my audience members had the most moving experience of their lives. After the presentation, the software company team shared the power and valuable takeaways of the meeting. Clearly, taking risks to go beyond the expected is the only way to drive the kind of engagement you need to move an audience.

Nicholas Webb

Nicholas Webb

Senior Partner at Lassen Innovation
Nicholas J. Webb is a business and healthcare futurist and professional speaker who speaks on innovation, leadership and customer experience. As a technologist, he has been awarded over 40 patents for technologies ranging from medical implants to consumer products. Currently, he serves as a partner at Lassen Innovation, where he provides consulting to some of the world's top brands.
Nicholas Webb
Nicholas Webb