In my mind, there are two kinds of attention: neck down, and neck up. Neck-up attention is when the listener has to make an effort to pay attention. Neck-down attention is when the listener is riveted to the speaker: she can’t help but pay attention.
Please note that, in our language of English, attention is paid because attention is a valuable currency. When listeners pay attention, they are rewarding you with arguably the most valuable currency in the world.
Here are 7 techniques that are guaranteed to earn you more attention without losing any of your professional credibility.
Start with the unexpected.
Start with a bang, not a whimper. Smokers like matches that light with the first strike, and listeners like presentations that ignite interest with the first sentence.
Try to jump right into the subject and create suspense, intrigue, and curiosity. That captures neck-down attention.
Make it about them.
Now that you’ve gotten listeners’ attention with your magnetic opening, make the story about them. Increase your You-to-Me-Ratio. Talk about their goals, their aspirations, and their anxieties. Cicero, a Roman statesman and orator, and one of the greatest speakers in the history of the world, said, “Tickling and soothing anxieties is the test of a speaker’s impact and technique.” He meant that you can capture attention if you remind an audience of a felt need, a pain point, or a threat to their well-being.
Keep it concrete at the start.
Show a prop. Use language that appeals to the senses. Don’t tax the audience right away with abstract reasoning or academic concepts. Better to hide your smarts than to wear them on your sleeve. Storytelling is a powerful way to get into a topic because we are hard-wired to absorb information through storytelling. Tell a good story and you’ll get neck-down attention.
Keep it moving.
Not just in terms of pace, but in terms of development. Make sure that every new bit of information you provide builds on what came before. We lose interest in movies when nothing is happening, or novels that stop while the author describes a bucolic setting for two pages. Our brains are saying, “I want action! Drama. Suspense.” The same holds true for your listeners. They are time-pressed, content-driven, and results oriented.
Get to the point.
One of the great pleasures the audience has is quickly grasping what you’re getting at. They resent you when you rob them of this pleasure.
Humor is inherently persuasive. It gives the speaker an unfair advantage because it literally changes the chemistry in the room, and in the brain of everyone present. But don’t try to tell jokes if you’re not a comedian. Simply allow your natural sense of humor to be present in the moment, and when something comes to mind, allow your humor to reveal itself.
Keep it interactive.
Social scientists have demonstrated that an interactive audience is more easily persuaded than a passive one. In many circumstances, the give and take between speaker and audience breaks through the reticence and reserve of listeners, encouraging them to engage with the speaker and play a part in the proceedings.
We see this in certain churches using the call and response tradition of worship. We see it in schools and universities, where an effective teacher, by asking questions, can get monosyllabic students to open up and participate.