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Another take on taking turns.

Have you been taking turns? Last week’s letter to you left me particularly aware of creating space in conversations.

On the phone with family, at lunch with a long-time friend, sitting at the rehab center with Frank… I’ve tried to be sensitive to turn exchange and turn duration. Handing over the conversational ball and not snatching it back immediately.

Who knows if any of them noticed? Still, it seems that putting some attention on taking turns has to have a positive impact on the quality of communication. It also brings up another question.

What if you’re the only one speaking?

If communication is always two-way (and it is) what happens when we’re at the front of the room, on a stage, or giving our presentation at a team meeting?

We’ll still be most effective if we take turns with our audience. That turn-taking will sound a little different, though, won’t it?

Here are a few ways to engage when you’re speaking to a group.

You can ask a direct question and expect to get an answer

You can even tell the group how to reply. One of my mentors would pose a question from the stage and add, “Say ‘You Bet!’” Before long the audience would start shouting “You bet!” without being prompted.

In a smaller group, you might choose one individual, ask them the question, wait for an answer, and even engage in a short back-and-forth. I do that a lot in workshops. It keeps people on their toes—they’re all thinking, “What if she calls on me next?”

I am careful, though, not to embarrass anyone no matter how they answer. And I’m quite comfortable with impromptu conversation. You might consider your own comfort level dancing with whatever comes up before you add direct questions to your speaking repertoire.

Technology can be your friend.

Audience engagement technology boomed during our Zoom years. You can find tools for taking a poll, answering multiple choice questions, or signing up for a gift, allowing you to collect email addresses in the process. Many of those apps can be used whether your talk is on a virtual platform or in a room in real time with human beings.

I’m a low-tech kind of speaker (to a fault, some would say). I tend to think of technology as more foe than friend. I’m a throw-back though. Most professional speakers are embracing, or at least tolerating, technology to keep listeners connected.

You might want to follow their lead. At the very least, if your audience is answering your poll questions on their phones, they aren’t reading their email.

Tag questions will still work.

We use tag questions all the time in one-to-one conversations. “Don’t you think?” “Wouldn’t you?” “What would you do?”

Sometimes they open the door for the other person to speak. And we ought to be using them liberally when we’re talking with a friend or colleague or client.

Tag questions can also be rhetorical. We don’t expect, or want, an answer.  The tag question is a way to signal our interest in the listener, draw them into the subject at hand, and keep them engaged with us.

That’s how they work when we’re speaking to a larger audience. You’ll hear me use phrases in a talk like “Can you imagine?” … “Isn’t that something?” … “Haven’t you noticed that?”

Nobody raises their hand and says, “Why yes, Catherine, I can imagine.” They do, however, connect what I’m saying with their own experience or opinion. And that connection is what I’m hoping to achieve.

Those questions keep the engagement flowing. That’s why I call them “conversational lubricant.” And I encourage my clients to use them in their speaking and in writing too.

Your tone of voice makes all the difference.

A natural, warm, conversational tone seems more important all the time as audiences crave connection. That old-timey give-a-speech sound doesn’t land as well as it once did. Nobody wants to be lectured.

Whether you’re directly inviting them to participate or not, the people you’re speaking to are individual human beings, each with their own set of experiences and expectations, their own views and deep desires.

A vocal tone that acknowledges those individual differences goes a long way toward inviting them along with you as you deliver your information, insight, and inspiration.

And don’t forget eye contact.

One way we signal our interest in and connection with the individuals in our audience is to make steady, comfortable eye contact with each of them. That means we’re not scanning the room, reading a screen, or gazing over their heads at the back wall.

Instead, we look at an individual, finish a complete phrase, and then move on to connect with another person elsewhere in the room. Over the course of our talk, we’ve had those moments of connection with each of them. They feel it. And so do we.

It might be subtle, but when the light of our attention falls on them, we’ve given them a turn to shine.

Maybe you’ve had some experience with this?

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about communication and taking turns.