I just came across an interesting article by Mark Goulston. "How to Know If You Talk Too Much" introduces a "Traffic Light Rule" from his friend Marty Nemko.
In conversation, you get 20 seconds of Green Light openness and interest from your listener, 20 seconds of Yellow Light where they start to shut down, and 20 seconds of Red Light where they are seriously wondering if you will ever bring them back into the conversation. Your job when speaking to someone is to repeatedly stop and bring that light back into the Green zone by letting the other person have a chance to participate.
We all know that a formal presentation is different and distinct from a one-to-one conversation. But the Traffic Light Rule can still offer useful guidelines, even for presenters.
The first and easiest comparison to make is during a hosted Q&A segment of your talk. If possible, you should get a moderator to select and read out audience questions to you. It relieves you of the burden of scrolling, selecting, and paraphrasing while simultaneously trying to compose intelligent answers. It also resets the Green Light for the audience by having a new voice act as their proxy in the question and answer conversation.
My experience is that most presenters badly violate the Traffic Light Rule during their answers. You need to remember that a question may not apply to everyone in the audience, and that other people are waiting in queue for their Green Light to participate with a question. Tolerance for long-winded recitations is much less than in your formal presentation section and you should look for ways to answer questions with short and specific responses. Let your moderator draw you out for more details if necessary.
Now how about during the formal presentation itself? You can't stop and ask a large audience to converse with you every 40-60 seconds. I would hope that's obvious. But you can help your audience to reset their Green Light status by repeatedly bringing them back into the process psychologically. Your goal is to continually acknowledge and include them so each person feels that you are speaking with them rather than at them.
Most presentations are recitations that ignore the audience. "This is a fact. This is another fact. Here's another piece of information." Audience members are inconsequential… They just happen to be listening in while a monologist talks to thin air, quite unaware and unconcerned with the fact that other people are present. After the first minute of this, the Red Light turns on and stays on in their receptivity meter.
So what can you do instead? Simple… Change from the impersonal to the personal in your delivery style. Use the words "you" and "your" as much as possible. Relate facts to the way that audience members should use them. Invite listeners to think about why your information is valuable and how it affects them. Ask questions even when you don't wait for a formal, physical answer. You can interject phrases such as "Does this make sense? Do you see how you gain a benefit from this?"
Instead of simply presenting a list of facts, challenge your audience to think about what is coming next: "The next point is one of the most important things you can do… Do you know what it is?" Or: "When surveyed, one of these items came out on top… Which do you think it was?" Each time you stop presenting for a moment and shift to an inclusionary statement, you reset the Green Light.
On a webinar you have even more help. You can see comments and questions as typed in by attendees. Cast a glance over to your chat stream every so often and mention someone by name. "Debbie just mentioned that she has used this successfully in her business. Thanks, Debbie!" That simple act of stopping and including a question or comment from an audience member resets the Green Light by shifting focus away from your nonstop recitation.
Let's not get too hung up on the details of whether the Traffic Lights change every 20 seconds during a presentation. The exact number of seconds is not the point. I hope you will use the concept to be more responsive to, aware of, and inclusionary of audience members as you present. You need to continually and repeatedly draw them back into the presentation as active participants in a conversation (even when they don't physically speak).
As you speak, keep asking yourself whether you have reset the Green Light recently. Find ways to involve and engage your attendees by getting them to turn on the active, participatory parts of their brains. It's more fun for them and much more effective for you.