One of the essential attributes of great speakers is their ability to catch and hold the attention of the audience. Abraham Lincoln was said to have once given a speech that so captivated the audience that reporters forgot to take notes. Holding attention is an important skill for communication in general but of particular importance for public speakers.
Attention Problem or Interest Problem?
A favorite complaint about humans in our ever-shortening attention span, but I see evidence to the contrary all around me. My five-year-old daughter can watch her iPad for much longer stretches than 8 seconds. My three year old can play with his train for hours. Humans don’t have an attention problem so much as an interest problem. The audience will listen to any speaker who is interesting. Don’t fall for the myth that you need an interesting topic to create attention. There are no interesting topics only interesting speakers. Trust me; many great topics have been devastated by devastatingly boring speakers.
Storytelling is a great way to connect with your audience, and it is a surefire way to create attention. Understanding why stories drive attention can help you tell compelling stories.
Humans are social animals. We like to learn about others. The most striking stories are those that are character driven. Always devote some time to bringing characters to life using names, giving background, or describing how they look. It is a bonus if the story is about you. Not only will the audience’s attention be raised, but they will also relate to you better.
Personal stories are useful because they have the potential to show vulnerability.
I often tell students to share intimate stories. Intimate, in this case, means giving information about yourself without fear of judgment. Showing a vulnerability is a powerful way to bring in attention and win over the trust of your audience. Stories about failure, embarrassment, or loss all communicate vulnerability and drive attention.
The hardest thing to do in public speaking is to give a long speech while maintaining audience attention. Using a story as a framing device for your organization is one way to deal with a long speech. Scientific research suggests that when the audience brainwaves sync with the brainwaves of a storyteller. Use this to your advantage. Don’t think about points and sub-points, rather think about plot elements of a story. Or make each main point of the speech about a different character. An excellent example of this type of organization was Fmr. President Bill Clinton’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Notice how the entire speech is organized using a narrative outline.
Our brains zero-in on the unexpected. Being creative can significantly increase attention. One of the few rules I give my students is not to begin a speech with “my name is,” because that is the most common way to start a speech and doesn’t do anything creative to draw in attention. Start with something that the audience hasn’t heard before, such as a story or a surprising statistic, before telling them your name.
Unfortunately, we tend to believe that being creative is a personality trait that you either have or don’t have. In my experience everyone has a creative capacity – it just comes easier to some than to others. Here are some things that you can do make yourself creative, even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative type.
Connect things that don’t seem to go together. You might describe someone as a virtuous criminal or a reluctant extrovert. These unfamiliar pairs create a need to focus that generates attention. I once began a speech by proclaiming myself to be the best loser. People were drawn in because being the best at something is not associated with being a loser.
A second way to manufacture creativity is to use metaphors and illustrations. It takes some forethought. However, if you use an unusual metaphor that resonates with the audience, it can create considerable attention. Visual metaphors and examples are the best because we are visual creatures. The audience will use their mind’s eye to visualize your point.
Being different is similar to creativity, but is focused on the speaker. There is a fine line that you want to tread between insider and outsider. You want to build up similarity with the audience because we trust people who we perceive to be like us. At the same time, we are more interested in people that are a little different than us. You can use your physical appearance to build some distinction. Stories and examples can also demonstrate your uniqueness.
Excellent delivery – how you use your voice and body – during a presentation is a powerful way to create attention. One important way is through confidence. We give attention to people who look like they know what they are saying. Another way is through passion. Passionate speakers draw our attention because passion is viral.
Confidence does matter. We present confidence by projecting a clear and fluent voice. Use big, open gestures. Move around. The human eye draws to movement, so these collect attention as well. If you don’t have to use a lectern, then don’t use it. Use all of the space that is available to you. I call this owning the room. It projects your confidence by taking up more space and moves the audience to pay attention. Move as close to the audience as you dare, look them in the eye. They are less likely to look away from you if they know you are looking at them.
Passion comes primarily from your voice, face, and hands. An energetic and lively voice is an excellent way to evoke passion. We also know that audiences are receptive to hand gestures. Wild gestures can be distracting, but bigger gestures convey more emotion than smaller gestures. A word of warning: do not confuse passion with anger. There is a place for anger, but an audience can be put off by anger more than passion.
Finally, the hardest part of delivery, in my opinion, is facial control. Showing emotion on your face without looking fake is hard. The simplest way to deal with your facial expressions is to relax. If you’re stressed out about your presentation, then your face will reflect fear. Another method to manage facial expression is to visualize something that evokes the intended emotion. I think of my son’s face when he wakes me up in the morning by jumping on top of me to evoke the emotion of happiness. It doesn’t look fake because it is real – just imported from another source.
People love to laugh, and they love people that can make them laugh. If you can pull this off, it is an excellent way to manufacture attention. Remember, however, humor requires a thick skin. Don’t let jokes that fall flat affect the delivery of your presentation. Be ready to move on. Also, use humor judiciously. Depending on the context, your audience may not appreciate humor.
With those caveats in mind, however, being funny is a valuable skill in public speaking. Three important aspects of making that audience laugh are timing, language, and content. I believe the best humor is organic – I don’t plan it beforehand. It just happens. Spontaneous humor is impossible to teach. It comes with the comfort to be yourself and the confidence to not use a script.
For important speeches, I don’t leave humor to chance. I disproportionately prepare and practice funny bits because humor is difficult, but the payoff is huge. It is a high-risk, high-reward kind of thing. The safest way to do humor is to turn it on yourself, and done correctly actually communicates confidence. Never damage your credibility for the sake of a joke. A second way to create humor is amplification and minimization. Use language to make things absurdly large or small. This process is an easy way to evoke a little bit of humor.
A final note about humor, don’t judge your success from audience laughter. Unless you are doing stand-up comedy, nobody expects you to be a stand-up comedian. I’ve had audiences sit stone-faced only to read feedback about how funny the speech was. The point is, you never know what’s going on with the audience, and you can create attention just by trying.
I hope you can use some of these to create attention because attention is such an important part of being a great public speaker. Let me know your tips on creating attention in the comments!