Your talk, presentation or messaging strategy has a formidable opponent. 

Don't worry.  Here's how to win your audience before you say word...

You may have noticed a headline a few years ago that claimed humans now have an attention span of just eight seconds, lower than a goldfish. 

I've also seen articles debunking that claim.  I don't know which is right but the point remains that there's a lot of noise competing for... wait, a squirrel...our attention.

 

That's true especially when we're delivering a talk, presentation or designing a messaging strategy when our the most formidable competitor, the smartphone, is sitting there in the hands of our audience. 

In the past several months when I conduct a seminar or give a talk on public speaking, presentations or messaging, I often survey the audience anonymously as part of an audience-participation exercise.   One of the questions I ask is this:

"You belong to a civic association and you're attending the group’s monthly luncheon. 

 

"The title of the keynote speaker’s address is of nominal interest to you. 

 

"How much time in seconds or minutes would you give this speaker your full attention before you begin to drift off and think of other things or take a peek at your smartphone?"

The number one answer to this open-ended question is between two t0 three minutes.  Other responses range from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. (This is not an empirical study, just part of an active-learning exercise.)  

One day, I had the opportunity to test this.  After my talk at a seminar, another presenter on a separate topic was introduced to the same audience that answered the question above.   I decided to sit in the back of the room to watch the audience and set my smartphone's timer to see how long it would take for the first person to pick up their smartphone and then measure the time until about half the audience of 40 or so did the same.  Again, this is not scientific but instructional, nonetheless. 

(And yes, the irony is not lost on me that I wasn't paying attention to this speaker either to conduct my little experiment.)

After about 15 seconds, someone picked up their smartphone.  A few seconds later, another.  And by the time one minute had passed, about half the room had checked in with their smartphones.  Most would pick it up, take a peek and put it down.  Five began using their smartphone, texting, checking email, a newsfeed or performing some other task and then put it down.  This began to have the appearance of a well-planned synchronized performance. 

I've tested this elsewhere with a similar outcome, making the answer of a two or three-minute attention span more polite than accurate, which I point out in my talk. 

Whatever number we would like to peg on an attention span, the fact remains that as speakers, presenters and even message strategists, we have a responsibility to grab the audience's attention as quickly as possible and keep them engaged during the ride.  

The days when we could count on an audience giving us the benefit of the doubt are over.  Daydreaming has been hijacked by smartphones.  

(If you're the boss or client, you can keep your audience off their smartphones by implied coercion.  But that's not what I'm talking about here.) 

(BLINK EXERCISE) 

I have used and taught audience engagement techniques that include the "best line wins" strategy (a compelling and memorable quote), telling a strategic story, asking a question, beginning the speech with an appropriate headline from the day's news, taking a poll and others. 

While those techniques are all useful, I have found in my 30 years or so working with leaders in business, politics and public affairs that great speeches and presentations have an understanding of the plan, the principles and the process. 

The key?  Your speech or presentation is not about you. 

In my audience-participation talks, here's another question I ask: 

While each of the following statements is important, which is your FIRST priority when developing and then delivering a speech or presentation either for business or to the public: 

 

A.  inspiring the audience to action

 

OR

 

B.  making certain the audience understands my information and point of view

PLAN/GOAL/MISSION - ENGAGE THE AUDIENCE FOR A SPECIFIC OUTCOME...PRINCIPLES - CONVICTION, CONNECTION, CALL ... PROCESS...BEST LINE, ETC. 

A few years ago, I was asked by a business leader to work with him on his business presentation.  He felt it had become somewhat stale and ineffective and he was looking for some "pointers" - as he put it - to freshen up his delivery. 

I researched his company, a medium-size manufacturer of products used in the medical field, and when we met and the introductions were finished I asked him to share how his products improved lives. 

He looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, "look, I'm just trying to sell products.  I have investors, employees and we're just trying to boost sales."

I thanked him for the answer and continued the conversation on the 3 key principles of message development (you'll see those below) by using simulated scenarios and other exercises.  Normally, these executive sessions are broken into two parts, each lasting about two hours.  The first is a general overview of principles and also exercises to determine the executive's speaking style.  The second, later that afternoon or the next day, is the specific application with a speech, presentation or media interview. 

Before I left the first session, I asked this executive if he could to find one product whose end use connected with him personally, not professionally, for any reason.   He said he would think about it.  

When I returned for the second session, I think he was even surprised by the answer because it made all the difference to his messaging.  More on that in a moment. 

HOW YOUR STORY IS TOLD IS ONLY HALF THE STORY...

FOCUS FIRST ON WHAT YOUR STORY DOES AND IT WILL MAKE YOUR STORY "STRATEGIC"

As this corporate president would discover, how a story is told is really only half the story.

Audiences are more impatient because they're more discerning.  They have options at their fingertips.  They want to be empowered, inspired and engaged not just educated...through authentic stories that connect with their passion and solves problems. 

They’re asking “how will this improve my life, my community, my profession, my business?”  Do you have an answer?

The tyranny of the smartphone. 

Shorter attention spans. 

The authenticity meter.

If you're a public speaker, presenter, business leader, expert in the media - anyone who communicates a message - it's becoming more difficult for your message to break through.  Even if you're the only one at the podium, you're competing against every smartphone in the audience.  

The audience will no longer wait for us to get to the point.  They’ll just turn to their smartphones and tune us out.  The opportunity to inspire and engage them is then gone.

How I address this issue may surprise you.   Allow me to illustrate what I mean by telling a story.  To protect confidentiality, no names are used. 

A few years ago, I was asked by a business leader to work with him on his business presentation.  He felt it had become somewhat stale and ineffective and he was looking for some "pointers" - as he put it - to freshen up his delivery. 

I researched his company, a medium-size manufacturer of products used in the medical field, and when we met and the introductions were finished I asked him to share how his products improved lives. 

He looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, "look, I'm just trying to sell products.  I have investors, employees and we're just trying to boost sales."

I thanked him for the answer and continued the conversation on the 3 key principles of message development (you'll see those below) by using simulated scenarios and other exercises.  Normally, these executive sessions are broken into two parts, each lasting about two hours.  The first is a general overview of principles and also exercises to determine the executive's speaking style.  The second, later that afternoon or the next day, is the specific application with a speech, presentation or media interview. 

Before I left the first session, I asked this executive if he could to find one product whose end use connected with him personally, not professionally, for any reason.   He said he would think about it.  

When I returned for the second session, I think he was even surprised by the answer because it made all the difference to his messaging.  More on that in a moment. 

HOW YOUR STORY IS TOLD IS ONLY HALF THE STORY...

FOCUS FIRST ON WHAT YOUR STORY DOES AND IT WILL MAKE YOUR STORY "STRATEGIC"

As this corporate president would discover, how a story is told is really only half the story. 

Audiences are more impatient because they're more discerning.  They have options at their fingertips.  They want to be empowered, inspired and engaged not just educated...through authentic stories that connect with their passion and solves problems. 

They’re asking “how will this improve my life, my community, my profession, my business?”  Do you have an answer?

 

This means it's important to really understand how exactly our audience is and what will move them from being motivated to being mobilized. 

Our stories have to be focused, purposeful and yes, strategic.  

The key to an effective story isn’t just about what a story says, it’s about what the story does ….to and for the audience.  

How does our story reveal a shared conviction? Connect with the audience? Call them to be engaged in something of significance?  

 

I’ve spent much of my career in the (often intense) fires of public persuasion as a press spokesperson, messaging strategist and consultant for leaders in business, politics and public affairs.  If our strategies didn’t engage our audience, we lost.  It was that simple. 

 

Over time with successes and disappointments, I’ve learned to condense the most important principles  into just 3 easily-understood keys for inspiring and engaging an audience with confidence behind a strategic story that matters:   

 

  • conviction — how to identify and authentically express what matters for your great cause or idea.  This is key to confident public speaking, by the way;

  • connection - how to define and inspire your audience with why your story matters to them;  

  • call to action  - how to engage your audience on how they can matter. 

Addressing these three questions will allow you to adapt this method to your delivery style. 

Over the years, I've seen countless consultants and coaches in politics and business communications try to jam their clients into the consultant's way of doing things instead of having the consultant adapt to fit the client.  It doesn't work.

We all have different speaking styles.  Some are great at telling stories and others are so intimidated by the idea, they never try.  Others can recite data and facts in almost a poetic fashion while others over composite for their lack of comfort with data by piling so many numbers into their presentation they lose the point. 

A consultant who tries to fit the client into the consultant's mold of what they believe the client should be are well-intentioned.  But when I've witnessed this occur, nearly every time, the client (my boss) reverted back to her/his old style and very little was actually accomplished. 

Develop a style you're comfortable with and then use the 3C system to develop and deliver your speech or presentation. 

Once the purpose is defined, there's still the issue of presentation, or development and delivery.  

Now, the competition sets in.  Even if you're the only one at the podium, you're not the only one talking to your audience. 

To compete with the smartphone, your delivery has to be compelling 

How do you grab the attention of your audience in the first few seconds?  Can you tell your story in a manner that invites your audience to join you in this journey? 

There are many ways to address this.  Here are a few of the techniques I've used and taught to keep the audience engaged:  

1. The burrito.  Wrap your story around your solutions.  Begin with your story, pause at the cliffhanger, insert your solution, complete the story and end with a call to action. 

2. The hoagie, where the meat is the centerpiece.  In this case, the meat isn't your facts and figures, it's the quotable line.  This is the main attraction - one line, one quote that summarizes your point and purpose and is memorable. Begin with it, repeat it, build around it. 

3. The jalapeño.  The jalapeño isn't subtle, the heat is immediate. Grab your audience's attention with the call to action.  If you've watched the business-pitch TV program Shark Tank, this is the approach.  The budding entrepreneurs always begin with the ask.  Why shouldn't you?

4.  The pie.  (See a theme here?)  When a pie is placed in the middle of the table with friends and family, what do we do?  We share it. We're all engaged.  Think about the pie analogy when you consider ways to interactively engage with your audience.  Invite instant polls or social media shares.  See the audience tables as small groups and give them a simulated scenario to address or a problem to solve.  Allow them to share in the experience. 

5.  The wings (or if you're a vegetarian, the veggie tray).  When we order wings or pick our favorites from a vegetable tray, we don't just eat one.  So, why should your speech only have one story?  Let's say you have one issue to address with three solutions.  Each one can be its own story or, if you prefer, an example.  Each story can come together to make a point. 

 

If you'd like to learn more about how to develop and deliver a message that matters and beat the smartphone, I'd love to hear from you. 

​​Mark R. Mills has spent over 30 years in the fires of public persuasion, as a press spokesperson, messaging strategist, executive communications coach and leadership program consultant, working with leaders in business, politics and public affairs to communicate great ideas that motivate and mobilize audiences. 

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