How to be Boring: Sure-fire Ways to Alienate and Disinterest Audiences (or not)

Einstein

I was watching an episode of ‘Bridezilla’ an American show about brides behaving badly. My justification for watching this episode is that I was channel surfing (of course you were Dean) when I came across this outrageous scene of a mum and dad spending $200K on the pre-wedding dinner the night before the actual wedding! I had to watch on (don’t judge me). It shouldn’t have surprised me later in the episode when the Groom declared “Oh, it’s very copacetic” upon seeing the room where the wedding reception was to be held later that day. Call me ignorant, but I had no idea what copacetic meant. Unaware at the time that all problems could be solved by googling I started hunting out dictionaries. For the record copacetic means, very good; excellent; completely satisfactory. My thoughts at the time were why didn’t he just say that rather than trying to show everyone how clever he was. If he was trying to convince me that he was a pompous git he did a good job. However, I don’t think that was what he actually intended.

Author Dan Pink notes that as much as 40 percent of people’s working lives involves influencing persuading and convincing others. Whether it is convincing others to adopt a new system or process, persuading a manager to invest in our personal and professional development, or influencing a management team to allocate more resources to our unit most of us need to communicate in a way that gets others to ‘buy-in’. We gain a competitive advantage when we become experts at turning people on rather than switching them off.

Dean Article June 1Much like our long-word-dropping groom above, my recent observation of people trying to gain ‘buy-in’ from others through communication convinces me that most of us are a long way from wielding the kind of influencing power of a Martin Luther-King or a Barrack Obama. Rather than engaging hearts and minds these communication messages had me ‘checked-out’ after just a few short moments. Why had I checked out?

For one thing they were full of corporate jargon – a word jumble that meant nothing to me. Much like our previously mentioned groom, the senders need to impress peers and bosses with cleverness seemed paramount. My need to understand as part of the audience seemed inconsequential. I felt like I was part of a communication requirement – a process being done to me rather than with me. I struggled to connect to how and why this was important to me.

So what can you do to avoid these common pitfalls?

Keep it Relevant

Remember your audience. What do you want them to think, feel and do during and after your presentation? Consider what’s in it for them. How will they benefit from what you’re proposing? Keep asking the question “Will this content make the audience think, feel and do what we want them to?”

The resume metaphor may be useful here. The resume’s purpose is to get you the interview, not the job. You carefully craft your resume to that end, to get you over the first hurdle. Try not to get your presentation to do too much.

Keep it Simple

The underlying principle here is that people can’t ‘buy-in’ if they don’t understand. Often what we have to communicate can be quite complex. When we have a lot of knowledge we find it hard to perceive how little knowledge the audience has. It is almost impossible to dumb-it-down too much.

Think about something that would be familiar to your audience that you can make some comparison to. For example a teacher may use the solar system as a metaphor to start talking about the structure of atoms. Whilst it is not a totally accurate comparison, it creates a strong building block from which the teacher can expand. It takes the students from the known to the unknown. It gives them a reference point.

The other point is that often the audience does not need the same level of information and knowledge that we do. Ask yourself critically what they really need to know. Our brains are naturally wired for the path of least resistance, so if people become confused they will tend to switch off.

Dean Article June 2

Keep it Short

People’s attention spans are much shorter than we think. Some research on the ability to pay attention found that the average adult is good for about 12 minutes in optimal conditions. People can think four times as fast as we can talk. That means that there is a lot of down-time for them to drift away from your presentation.

Challenge yourself to shorten your presentation time. If you had planned to take an hour, force yourself to complete your presentation in 30 minutes. If you thought you would take 30 minutes try creating a plan to get your pitch across in 10 minutes.

Dean Article June 3

Keep it Interesting

Save the Children does not bombard you with facts about how many impoverished children there are in Peru. Instead they tell you a story about 10 year-old Jorge. They tell you a story because stories are good at organising ideas, are memorable and have the ability to evoke emotions.

Stories create a vivid picture. When we pitch our idea in fact based language the listener struggles to put it into context and to create meaning. A story helps to graphically frame our ideas in a way that can the hold the technical, operational and logistical information. Facts and figures on their own are hard to organise and remember.

Stories are memorable because we are highly familiar with the structure. Stories are how knowledge has been passed down for Millennia. The narrative structure makes facts like which berries are safe to eat and when to plant certain crops much easier to remember.

Stories have the ability to generate emotion. Triggering emotions in the audience is important for a couple of reasons. The amygdala (a small walnut shaped structure situated mid-brain) is often referred to as the ‘seat of emotions’ and is partly responsible for encoding memory. We tend to remember events where higher levels of emotion were experienced versus those where we were unmoved.

Emotions also evoke a drive for action. Emotions like awe, excitement, amusement and anger push people to get involved and to do something. When researchers study videos that go viral one of the commonalities to all of them is their ability to generate one or more of these emotions.

Dean Article June 4

Keep it Two-Way

Make it a conversation rather than a lecture. Find opportunities for the audience to be involved in your pitch. Ask for their opinion and experience as it relates to the subject matter. Develop an activity that links to and represents some of the key ideas and concepts.

Earlier we discussed the idea that we have short attention spans. For this reason it is important that you mix your presentation up. Technically known as ‘state change’, they occur any time you change the mode of delivery to the audience. A few ways you can do this include; telling a story, asking a question, doing an activity, watching a video clip, having a pair discussion. The only thing you need to ensure is that the state change relates to the content of your presentation, otherwise you will only confuse your audience.

Conclusion

People want to be inspired. People want to be connected to something that is meaningful and has purpose. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. This is why people spend their evenings surfing the net looking at YouTube clips and posting motivational and inspiring memes on their facebook page.

Take a risk and try something new. Make yourself vulnerable as part of your presentation. Show people that you are passionate and excited about what you are pitching. Passion and excitement are contagious.

Good luck inspiring hearts and minds!   

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