Audience Pays With Attention. Make Things Worthwhile

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I once worked with an incredibly wise guy. I helped him hone his presentation about phylogenetic trees, evolution and biomechanics. I asked him to prepare things prior to our first meeting, as I usually do. I gave him notes on structure ahead. Big Idea must go first I stressed in en email. Wise man he was, indeed. When time came for us to meet for the first time, I asked him to present what he had prepared.

After having listened to his presentation for the first time I knew he was wise and en expert in his field. I knew some new words, too. I knew he was stressed and seemed like a nice person. The only problem was I did not know what’s in it for me. My poor mind was struggling. I was kind enough not to browse my Facebook when he started with an agenda filled with details. I was strong enough not to doze off when he went straight into details of different schemes of phylogenetic trees. I was almost happy when he finally gave one interesting example: he proved we (as humans) were more related to bats than kangaroos. And then I had to stop him. He was clearly suffering from the curse of knowledge. He was an expert and that was the problem.

He was giving out information as detailed as possible. Without any possible structure. And no potential meaning for the brain of the audience. And that is crucial. As John J. Medina advocates in his book Brain Rules we should always follow the pattern meaning before details if we want to win the audiences brains. Get better understand and earn attention. Yes, earn! The audiences pay with their attention and it’s our duty as speakers make things worthwhile for them. So how to make that happen? Well – make the topic relevant by starting well.

I asked this wise guy if he could tell me anything interesting about those phylogenetic trees. A fun fact, a trivia, a story or a great case study. And he told me two fascinating criminal stories. And how the very phylogenetic trees were used to prove the bad guy was guilty (in one case) and to prove that the medical stuff in Al-Fateh hospital in Libya were innocent (in the other case). All that was possible using evolutionary and bioinformatics evidence. We’ve decided to start with a more spectacular, media dense and better-known story of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor. They were accused by the Libyan government officials of an act of bioterrorism by deliberately injecting 426 hospitalized children with HIV-tainted blood. The science took stand and proved them innocent beyond any doubt.

This story might have not been relevant per se to the audience. None of them were personally involved we guessed. But it was simple, unexpected, credible, concrete, full of emotions and it was a story. And as research by Uri Hasson proves there is no better way to start well to capture attention.

Next time you think of an intro, start with a big idea. Make your story worth listening to by showing me the context. Where will I use the knowledge. Why is it relevant. Tell me something I do not know and I will listen. Start with an agenda and I will doze off. And you will burn in hell.

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar Flickr via Compfight cc