Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Attention! Why speakers need a strong, fast start

Two recent books on speaking and presenting get into some of the research -- and gut reaction --that goes into getting your audience's attention at the start of your speech or presentation. And, as with many types of advice about public speaking, there's real life as well as research for you to factor into your calculations.

In Scott Berkun's Confessions of a Public Speaker, he notes: 
There is a moment  at every movie, symphony and lecture, right before the show starts, when the entire audience goes silent...This is called the hush over the crowd, but really it's the moment when the crowd itself first forms...And when I'm the speaker, I know that special moment is the only time I will have the entire audience's full attention....What defines how well I'll do starts with how I use the power of that moment. The balance rests on a bigger question: how will I keep people's attention after that moment is gone?

I agree with Scott and in some ways, that helps you divide your talk into two important parts:  A strong start, followed by a presentation or talk that's planned to keep bringing the audience's attention up high, knowing there's plenty that will divert your listeners.

Some of this involves basic physiology.  Sitting passively slows people's attention. Berkun cites research by Donald A. Bligh, whose book What's The Use of Lectures? recounts using heart-rate monitors on students in lectures. Results? Audience heart rates were at their highest at the start, falling off through the rest of the lecture. Another researcher Berkun cites, John Medina, writes in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School that your audience has a maximum attention span of 10 minutes. (That would be a total, not just for your beginning. Sorry.)

But Cliff Atkinson, author of The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever cuts an even finer standard for speakers and presenters, based on that technology backchannel tugging on audience members' attention. He says:
In a world in which your audience is accustomed to high-quality media at their fingertips, you need to capture their attention out of the gate. You must engage your audience within the first five slides or at least the first five minutes of your presentation.
You've got the idea.  Your sweet spot's a short one.  Here are 4 ways to make the most of it to enhance your audience's attention:
  • Start a conversation with the audience: Go beyond taking a poll of the audience, because they really want to contribute to your presentation.  Ask an open-ended question related to the topic, and let them share their thoughts--or tell them you'd like to put the Q&A up front.  It's a great way to get the time and information you need to calibrate your remarks.  Audience members like to hear themselves and like the potential surprise their fellows can bring to a presentation.
  • Enter the crowd--anywhere but the front:  Moving yourself into the audience is a great tactic for building rapport and for holding attention. All eyes will follow you.  Better yet, start talking with a portable microphone and by entering the crowd from the side or rear of the room, both for an added surprise and to shake up the norms of the audience.
  • Don't waste precious minutes on preliminaries and throat-clearing:  Forget telling them how very glad you are to be here today, how much you appreciate the invitation, that lame joke, talking about the weather, thanking the host committee or talking about yourself.  (There: I just saved you three minutes.) Speakers love to back into their talks obliquely in these ways, and they're just wasting time. You can weave your bio into your presentation where it's relevant and thank the hosts with a nice note.  Get right down to it.
  • Craft a strong opening statement: Instead. replace those niceties with strong content: A compelling question, an odd fact, your most surprising point. Here's the time to use an unusual prop and ask the audience to guess what it is, or to suggest a strong viewpoint. Jump right in.  You might try outlining a presentation as you normally would, then cutting out the first few preliminary slides or points and see where that gets you.
Of course, you need to calibrate your start to the overall time allotted for you to speak--don't waste five minutes of warm-up when you only have 8 minutes total.  Then work on the rest of your presentation using the tips below to figure out how to keep attention up high after your strong--and fast--start.

Related posts: Do women speakers apologize too much (especially at the start)?

Answering your questions on starts that fall flat or get shaky

When the speaker needs to catch her breath

When you have to introduce yourself

Why you may want to avoid starting with a joke

What to do when you're losing the audience

Share your accidents (& saves) on the podium

They don't happen all that often, but sometimes accidents do happen to speakers up on the podium, in full view of the audience--or right before they go on.  Your ability to make a quick save and help the show go on might, under those circumstances, be your most important presentation skill.  A sense of humor doesn't hurt, either. 

Take a lesson from this very visible mishap that struck the master of ceremonies at a special ceremony in Ireland at an event honoring then-U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.  At the end of this article on art catastrophes in today's New York Times lies hidden this gem of an anecdote.
To commemorate the event, a piece of Waterford crystal was carved in the shape of an American flag with eagles. It was a big, glittering hunk of glass that would be presented by the master of ceremonies, Donald Keough, an investment banker.

But before Mr. Keough or anyone else could get their hands on the crystal, another speaker heading for the podium brushed past the sculpture. It toppled off the back of the stage.

Mr. Keough looked down at the remains and took a deep breath.

“Madam Ambassador,” he announced, “you’re going to receive more pieces of Irish crystal than anyone in history.”
Sometimes the accident happens to the speaker, as you can see in Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's post from Twitter, above. Have you had to make a quick save up in front of the audience? Share your accidents and saves in the comments. I'd like to amass a collection of quick-on-your-feet solutions--and they don't need to be grand ones, just what worked for you--to encourage speakers and presenters that we can overcome these hiccups on the way to a memorable talk.