Most public speaking programs focus entirely on WHAT you say. Unfortunately, improving WHAT you say won’t help you unless you also know HOW to say it. The first rule of professional speaking is simple:
Nobody is listening to you!
People Aren’t Listening to You
Let’s be honest. Sometimes when I do a video conference from my home office, I only get dressed from the waist up. From the waist down I might be in swim trunks.
You can’t see my 8-year-old playing with balloons on the camera, and you can’t hear my 4-year-old: “Daddy … I’m hungry.”
But I can! I’m not really listening.
I’ve had a client tell me his boss brings a laptop to his presentations and answers e-mail while he’s talking.
I’ve been to presentations where 90% of the heads weren’t even looking at the PowerPoint slide.
They weren’t listening.
I can’t tell you how many “modern” offices are conveniently made entirely of glass, so that in the middle of my coaching, my clients have to wave at every coworkers that passes by.
They’re not listening.
Every presentation room has a light flickering in the corner, a draft coming in from the vent, a bass track playing from the video in the next room, and the scent of someone’s lunch wafting in under the door.
Don’t even get me started on the phones, tablets, phablets, and laptops. Then there’s video conferences, smartwatches, earphones, texts, thermostats, ball point pen depressors, gossip, handouts, headaches, indigestion, wallpaper texture, coffee mugs, stains on the carpet, swivel chairs, and footsies under the table.
They’re not listening.
Many people believe that if you are in the audience it’s your job to respect the speaker and pay attention:
If you didn’t get anything out of the meeting it’s your own fault. You need to be a better listener.”
I say hooey!
Maybe that’s true, but I don’t want to influence only that one person in the room with the superhero attention span. I want to influence everyone in the room–and that makes it MY responsibility to steal their attention away from everything else.
I accept it as a rule that nobody is listening. In more practical terms, I give as much preparation to HOW I speak as I do to WHAT I say:
It doesn’t matter WHAT you say if nobody is listening.
It’s not their fault they’re not listening. There’s just too much competition.
Steal the Focus of Attention
I’m not going to give you the usual advice that tells you to start with a presentation with a question, a quote, or an attention getting anecdote.
Stealing attention means using science to influence the listener in a way that they give you attention whether intentional or not.
You are on stage. They’ve already accepted that, so you don’t need their permission.
There are certain things hard-wired into the human body. Stealing attention can be linguistic or even physiological.
Here are 3 things that will force another human brain to refocus their attention on you every time:
You’re standing in a conversation when suddenly someone else walks up and interrupts. You were in the middle of a great story or heartfelt chat, but the person you were talking to you suddenly ignores you and starts talking to the new person.
It’s happened to everybody. Why? Because the new person was moving! Hardwired into every human brain and every human eye is a hyper-sensitivity to movement in our peripheral vision.
Unless you know in advance to restrain yourself, you will turn your head 100% of the time when something unknown moves in your peripheral vision. You can’t help it. It’s biology!
If you want to make it easy for people to ignore you, stand still behind a lectern or stay seated at the boardroom table.
If you want attention, stand up, wave your arms, stretch, walk, jump, anything. Just move.
Volume is, of course, an obvious way to attract attention.
Every human being who has ever had a disagreement with another human being (every human being) knows that we instinctively raise our voices to be heard.
We all know also that yelling or loud talking doesn’t work very long. Once everybody is yelling, nobody is listening.
However, when everybody is not yelling, a single burst of volume will force people to pay attention ever time.
Scientifically speaking the volume at which the human brain is unable to resist is around 90 decibels. That’s about the volume of a motorcycle or lawnmower. Anything that loud will turn every head involuntarily.
Keep the volume brief, and keep it appropriate.
3. Lack of Closure
Now for the best kept secret in communication. Not only is your brain hardwired to pay attention to a movement, a change in volume, or a surprising touch (not very applicable in public speaking), but your brain is also hard-wired to keep paying attention until the “threat” of that volume or movement is eliminated.
You know that musician who leaves the last note of the song off? Really annoying!
Great musicians unknowingly use this psychology to make great music. The music never quite resolves, and then it never quite resolves again, and then it never quite resolves again, and again, until that very last note.
Athletes increase their performance using this psychology by doing nothing more than timing the game. In practice, you’re easily distracted, yet somehow by adding a timer to the shot clock you stay hyper-focused on the shot.
A great speaker does the same thing. A great speaker opens something, but doesn’t close it.
If you want to steal the attention: Don’t give closure!
Now we circle back around to the typical advice you hear from a Communication 101 class:
Begin your speech with an interesting statistic, a joke, a quote, a question, or an amusing anecdote.
Sometimes this is good advice and sometimes it is not. Now that you know the principle involved you can see for yourself.
A good statistic or question will steal attention only if it opens up the unknown and leaves it unresolved.
A good joke or quote will grab attention only if it introduces a topic that you don’t immediately resolve.
A good anecdote is only a good attention stealer if it introduces a dilemma or antagonist that leaves the future of possibility open.
A good story teller doesn’t tell you about the princess’s rescue at the the beginning, he tells you about the dragon, and leaves the story unresolved.
All of those lists you find online about how to start a speech might work great. Just make sure you don’t give closure.
Bad example question: “Why are we required to wear seat belts?” – Everybody knows the answer already! The topic is immediately closed.
Good example question: “What would happen if we replaced seat belts with dental floss?” – The speaker is obviously going to give more information! The topic remains open.
Theft is Not Enough
Imagine starting your next presentation. You move, you increase your volume, and then you open an unresolved dilemma? You will have stolen rapt attention.
Of course stealing attention is not enough. In my SpeechDeck presentation skills system, stealing attention is not about forcing the listener to understand or even care. Making them actually care is a little more nuanced.
Stealing attention with volume or movement is really just directing FOCUS, which is part of the indigo “Manage the Theater” principle.
To maintain that attention and and keep the listener “interested” requires the red “Inject Anticipation” principle. Lack of closure works this way by creating anticipation. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Just remember, people aren’t listening to you.
It simply doesn’t matter WHAT you say if no one is listening.
Therefore, don’t spend all your time on crafting a perfect, logical, message. It’s not just WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it.
The most important HOW is thievery.
STEAL their attention.