Engaging the Audience

Engaging the audienceWhen listening to the radio, we can often tell when a text is being read to us. There can be something monotonous and unengaging about a text that is being read to an audience. In an international conference delegates often speak from a prepared text. The challenge is to disguise that fact and avoid a dull or disengaged delivery.

Secretary-General delivering a speech Secretary-General delivering a speech

Part of the answer is to make eye contact with your audience or at least, if you cannot look fellow delegates in the eye, to look the Chairman in the eye. This should be deliberate, meaningful looks, synchronized with meaningful pauses in your delivery or points of emphasis. Think also about which words to stress, again both to aid your listeners’ understanding of what you are saying and to emphasize important words.

Some delegates become highly proficient at memorising their statements and delivering them with apparent spontaneity; others become skilled at reading without giving any sign of doing so, either in their voice or their movements.


Inexperienced public speakers have a tendency to speak too fast. This is particularly undesirable at international conferences. Your interventions should be much slower and with longer pauses than in normal conversation.

You want to retain the attention of your listeners and too fast a delivery will cause many to ‘tune out’. Some listeners may be listening to you in a language of which they are not native speakers. They will have a better chance of understanding if you do not speak too fast.

Adequate pauses are also important for the same reasons. They are important for helping comprehension, especially by non-native speakers of the language you are using and also for helping everyone understand you if the language you are speaking is not your native tongue.

It is far preferable for you to shorten your statement even if this involves cutting important elements, than to speak so quickly that what you say is not understood by the audience.

In informal meetings you can speak slightly faster, but do not forget that being understood requires pauses and rhythm in your speech.


To engage your audience it is important to show that you are engaged by your remarks. The sentiment that will most effectively transmit your message and make it resonate is sincerity. If you can find ways to communicate your sincerity, this will help your message leap over cultural divides and political divisions.

Another emotion is even easier to transmit across cultural divides, but is highly inimical to achieving a constructive outcome: anger. If you convey an impression of being angry or even merely irritated, you will immediately lose dignity and respect. People will also think you have lost control and consequently that you are unreliable. In addition, they will see your state of mind and temperament as inimical to the prospects for agreement and therefore to their own objectives for the conference.

Somewhere in between highly desirable sincerity and seriously self-damaging anger lies passion. In extreme cases, well-controlled passion for a cause (that others can identify with) can be an important asset in conference interventions. But if it is manifested too often, for causes that do not warrant it and if it is not restrained by a sense of realism and a willingness to take account of the concerns of others, it rapidly becomes a negative, hindering your ability to sway the conference.

And it is the other delegates who will judge, by their own sympathies and values, whether you have crossed these lines. The conclusion is that passion may inspire your actions, but if so, in most situations it is best to disguise that fact.


As previously noted, the essential requirements are dignity (because you are representing an entire nation) and conformity to the customs and rules of the particular conference in which you find yourself (because that is the general expectation of your audience and what they are best equipped to cope with; it is also a mark of respect for your audience). The level of formality in a conference will vary as the conference unfolds: opening and closing ceremonies and the General Debate tend to be the most formal, while the committee stage tends to be less formal than Plenary and small group meetings are even less formal. This applies to the style of speech as well as to all other aspects. One constant however is old-fashioned politeness. This consists of at all times showing respect for other delegations as individuals and for the governments, states, nations and causes they represent.