Public Speaking: Split Shot Audience

By on March 16, 2008

Like that moment in bowling, when your ball leaves two pins standing far apart, there are times when your audience is divided into two camps.

One half is knowledgeable about your area of expertise, while the other half is green.  Or, one half is interested in the science, while the other half is preoccupied with its business application. Or one half of your audience is eager to hear your thoughts, while the other half is not only indifferent, but cynical and disengaged. Remarks you prepare all seem appropriate for one group, but not the other.

What’s the best solution?

First of all, an audience divided in two is probably overly simplistic.  There are those who care about the topic, those who couldn’t care less, and those who are neutral.

Furthermore, certain types of people are most interested in the speaker’s position on the topic and the reasoning supplied to support that position.  Others are more interested in how to execute the idea, and still others on the values and beliefs that are embedded in the stated position.

Generally, when making a proposal, a speaker can expect some listeners to be with him, some opposed, and some to be undecided. As in American politics, there are lefties, righties, and those who vote both ways.

Teachers often say, “Teach to the middle,” suggesting that you can reach the greatest number of students that way.  This also suggests that you are willing to lose the top performers as well as those at the bottom of the class.  It also implies that by appealing to the middle, you follow the Pareto Principle, which says you get 80% of your results from 20% of your effort.

However, I think we can devise a better solution.  I have worked with many medical researchers who are presenting to venture capitalists and Wall Street analysts in order to raise money for their projects.  The audience in these situations is all over the map in terms of expertise. Some know a little, and some alot.

In these situations, I have found that it is helpful to think of the problem of a split shot audience as a problem of attention, not comprehension .  And the way to keep attention is to tell a dramatic story and use all the tools available to a good storyteller.

The first step for the speaker is to set the stage.  The speaker needs to describe the current situation in the disease state, the current standard of care, and perhaps a dab of history to describe how the standard evolved.

Next, the speaker needs to describe the unmet medical need, and the suffering, or financial burden, that is the result.  This has to be emotional in tone.  The speaker needs to make the audience feel the suffering and demonstrate his real concern.

Then, the speaker needs to paint the picture of how patients, or providers, or payors would benefit if only this problem would go away.

And only then, after he has helped the audience to understand the general situation, the terrible problem facing patients and the medical establishment, and painted a picture of what life could be like if only these problems could be overcome–only then does he introduce his new product and tell the story of how it works its wonders in the human body.

In other words, the speaker uses the basic tools of story-telling to make his presentation dramatic.  The basic tools of story-telling are setting, hero, problem, solution, climax, and resolution.

In this way, the skilled speaker engages everyone in the audience because the human mind is hard-wired to think in stories.  We tend to dismiss facts, but we are willing to suspend our disbelief when we hear stories, especially when they resonate with our previously held beliefs.

Furthermore, in my example, the scientific speaker can go into considerable detail if he has set up the story so that his molecule is the hero, riding into town, taking on the bad guys, and putting things right.  Listeners will stay focused because they’re interested in the drama.

And if he is careful to use analogies and metaphors to introduce and sum up complex information, then he will keep the attention of both the experts and the neophytes.  Humor sprinkled throughout can also keep people attentive during the denser parts of the talk.

For example, when I think of a particular cytokine that triggers the cascade of chronic inflamation that we know as rheumatoid arthritis, I often think of Osama bin Laden.  Both remain hidden, unharmed–manipulating levers to cause harm all over the world.  If only we could isolate both of them and knock them out! Then all the misguided minions–men and molecules–would stop inflicting pain on the world, and peace and ease would return to our lives.

Hardly scientific, I know.  But with a vivid and detailed description of how the disease works, it’s ultimately a story about a no-good cytokine–the ring-leader of a violent gang causing pain and suffering, and a heroic little drug who has a plan to get close enough to knock him out once and for all.

Who knows, it might inspire the venture capitalists to remember the pitch, and fund the effort to help the hero.


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