The more experience I gain in public speaking the more I am convinced of one simple truth: your audience does not listen to you. Yes, they sit in front of you. And yes, they seem to be listening to you. But – far too often, in their heads they are far, far away. They think about the grocery shopping after your presentation. They think about the cup of coffee they should have had before your talk. Some men think about the attractive lady in row five, while the attractive lady in row five thinks about her daughter’s birthday party the following day.
As a speaker, you face one ruthless competitor: their inner voice. Thanks to their inner voice, in just seconds, the level of audience attention can drop lower than the stock price of Lehmann Brothers.
If you are not facing a group of meditators, it is almost impossible to make their inner voice shut up. But – not every thought is a bad thought. Any reflection on your content on stage is a good thought. Therefore, make their inner voice your ally.
Here are three ways to do so.
Stories capture attention
Three years ago, I received a phone call from my former boss Ralf. It was a hot and sunny day in Barcelona. I was lying on the beach enjoying a cool can of Estrella Damm, the local beer brand. Next to me some beach volley ballers were fighting for every point. Ring ring! ‘Hey Ralf, what’s up?’ – ‘Hi, no time for small talk. Florian, we have to meet. My assistant will arrange a meeting. I’ve got to run, bye.’
The first way to make your audience’s inner voice your ally is to tell stories. We reflect on stories; we identify with stories; we listen to stories. Your stories become even more attractive for your audience, when you relive them with dialog.
Pauses create attention
Tension builds attention. And how can you create tension in your talk? Use dramatic pauses. Do you know why a dramatic pause is called dramatic? Because it adds drama to your speaking. More drama, more reflection. More reflection, more attention.
I looked at my phone. [PAUSE] Something was weird. [PAUSE] Why would my brother send me a text message [PAUSE] at 3:48am? [PAUSE] A text message with the first lines of Mozart’s requiem? [PAUSE] I scrolled down the text. I almost dropped the phone. [PAUSE] Dad…
Questions force attention
Can you NOT answer a question you hear? You have just proven the case. Our brain has to answer any question. Questions force your audience to be attentive.
Avoid open questions. Open questions are an exclusive invitation for loud alpha dogs to bark back at you. Open question with yes/no answers are risk-free.
What do you think about the political situation in Catalonia? Now, you are officially dead as a speaker.
Have you been to Barcelona? No risk.
Stories, pauses or questions – three ways to raise the level of audience attention. Make sure you raise it a lot. Otherwise, hardly anyone will listen to you. And that is a fact.