My All-time Favorite Public Speaking Secret

The one thing that is guaranteed to get others’ attention is the one thing that most “polite” presenters are afraid to do. As my 2015 Christmas present, I give you my all-time most favorite presentation technique that will make people pay attention to you.

What do Donald Trump, Star Wars, and Christmas at the in-laws have in common?

The answer is a secret to making others pay attention to you whether they want to or not–contradiction.

Donald Trump

trumpUnfortunately, nobody listens to the political ads from candidates that play nice. They’ve done studies. The reason politicians run negative ads is because they work.

Think about it. Who pays attention to the politician who never says anything bad?

The only people who listen to a prissy, puritanical politician are the people who already support him/her.

On the other hand, if I say something bad about your guy, not only does everybody on your team listen, but everybody on my team listens too. Negativity gets me two listeners for the price of one. Not everybody likes it, but everybody pays attention.

All I have to do to get your attention is pick a subject about which I know you have a strong opinion and pretend like I’m going to contradict your beliefs:

Did you hear what Hillary Clinton said …

I don’t have to think of something intelligent. I don’t have to reveal my true opinion. It doesn’t even have to be true. I know you have an opinion on Hillary, so all I have to do is pretend like I’m going to contradict her (even if I don’t) and you are guaranteed to pay attention.

Have you ever seen one of those political operatives on TV that agrees with everything their candidate says ([Insert name of your favorite political hack]). It’s nauseating. Yes-men are boring! The only way the news can make it interesting is to pit two yes-men from different sides against each other.

Pretend to contradict anything that listeners think they know and they will listen to you whether they want to or not.


movieMovies and good books do the exact same thing.

There’s a reason why Star Wars sells 500,000,000 tickets and “My Life” sells only 5. Have you ever been to one of those “My Life” movies?  Usually about an hour into it, I lean over and ask my wife: “Has anything happened yet?”

If you want people to pay attention there has to be a dark side. Take any writing 101, literature 101, or common sense 101 class. The first thing you will learn is that a good story needs an antagonist.

There has to be a bad guy. An enemy, foe, competitor, opponent, rival, perpetrator, aggressor, traitor, or Sith lord.

Otherwise, who will contradict the good guy?

A contradictory force (an antagonist) turns any presentation into a story. If you stand up at a business meeting and do not identify an antagonist, I’ll bet you 100:1 odds that you’re boring.

Identify anyone or anything that contradicts the common good and the other good guys will listen to you whether they want to or not.


And so we arrive at the in-laws house for Christmas. What do the in-laws have in common with Donald Trump and Darth Vader?

You agree with everything they say.
You love all of their traditions.
It’s so relaxing.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

If I love my in-laws and my in-laws love me, why is it so easy to make them uncomfortable without even trying.

Why? Contradiction.

My opinion of the in-laws is not a story about good and evil. It’s about attention and no attention. You know as well as I do that no matter how great they are, you can come home exhausted.

That little bit of inter-familial contradiction keeps your brain in a persistent state of DEFCON 2. Oh wait … we use colors now — your personal homeland security advisory system alert turns perpetually orange.

Threat level orange

Which brings me to the most important point: Contradiction is a great way to get attention, but attention can backfire. Contradiction only works if you also build rapport.

In the SpeechDeck system, contradiction is part of the RED “Inject Anticipation” principle. I’m a natural at red. Unfortunately, I’m also a natural at offending people.

If you are anything like me, and you contradict others easily, make sure you also master the ORANGE “Develop Relationships” principle.

On the other hand, if you are more worried about offending people than getting their attention, you are natural at orange, and you need to try a little more red.

Most presenters error on the wrong side. In private conversation at the in-laws you’re supposed to error on the side of long-term relationship (orange). When you are in the spotlight on stage, you’re expected to be more provocative (red).

That’s my favorite secret: Contradict!

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