Presenting ideas is largely about getting and keeping attention. Most of us are ambivalent about being the center of attention, but we have to be willing and able to focus many minds at once if we want to be convincing.
Here are a few techniques to capture and hold attention.
- Say something 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.
- Start where they are, not where you are. Put the audience in the role of the hero, the person who must slay the dragon in order to save the fair maiden. For instance, speaking to pharmaceutical sales executives on the subject of Medicare Part D, you might say: “With the advent of Medicare Part D, many companies invested significantly in the potential of a large new market. You led the charge on this initiative, launching marketing and sales training programs way before your competitors. And yet you have not seen a return on your investment. Formulary adoptions have not led to greater market share, and messaging has not changed to meet the needs of the target audience. How did this happen, and what can you do to regain momentum?” This is better than saying, “I have done some research into the results of efforts to capitalize on Medicare Part D. Let me tell you how the research was conducted and then I will tell you some of the results.” The first is dramatic, the second is boring, and you should strive to have carved into your tombstone the epitaph, “She bored them less!”
- Keep it concrete. In the old days, great speakers told stories, used analogies and metaphors to make the abstract more easy to grasp. They gave examples. For instance, Lincoln once made fun of an opponent’s argument by saying that his point of view had “as much substance as a soup made from the passing shadow of a starving crow.” Since most Americans at the time lived in the country on farms, and made soups, they knew just how insubstantial Lincoln’s opponent was.
- 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 don’t like movies that stagnate, or novels that stop while the author describes a bucolic setting for two pages. Your listeners are saying, “Okay, I got it. Now what?” Make sure there’s always something happening.
- Shift back and forth between ideas and examples. Your listeners can’t survive in the thin atmosphere of abstraction and generalization. Bring them down to brass tacks. Physician speakers who are highly effective at influencing the prescribing habits of their peers are good at this. They report the data from clinical trials, but they also tell stories about individual patients. In other words, they use case studies to illustrate what the data means.
- Get to the point. Your audience is time-pressed, content-driven, and results-oriented. A business-like approach adds to your credibility, without which you are sunk. Credibility is the main currency of influence. If your audience trusts you, they will pay attention the best they can.
- Arouse emotion. Humor is inherently persuasive. It gives the speaker an unfair advantage. Or reveal something personal about yourself that enables the audience to identify with you. I had a client recently–a wonderful woman who works in the pharmaceutical industry–who said in a presentation that she had been an exotic dancer in order to pay for her college tuition. The audience was shocked because she is a highly respected senior person in her company, and you can bet she made her point that we can all achieve our objectives if we are willing to step out of our comfort zones.
- Finally, the voice of a person with intellectual conviction sparkles with change–changes of pitch, volume, and speed. Your voice should be animatedly alpine. And your body should be full of purpose. From the patterned tips of your fingers, to the furrows in your forehead, to the exquisite dance of your hands, you should say, with your words, voice, and body, that you are in love with the topic, and in love with the chance to engage the audience on it.