In our technology centered world, information moves very quickly. We are constantly bombarded with so much information that out of necessity, we disregard much of what we are exposed to. Psychologists fifty years ago determined that the average attention span of a person is just two-minutes. Today, they say that the average attention span is just eight seconds. If you doubt their findings, listen to a headline news report on the radio or TV. Most of the news stories will be less than eight seconds in length, and those that are longer will often be broken up by sound bites that are, you guessed it, about eight seconds long.
My point is that if we want to gain and keep the attention of our audience, we only have a few seconds to do it. So rather than starting with a preamble such as, “My talk is about,” or “I’m going to tell you about,” just jump right in. Get their attention like a newspaper story or TV reporter would by giving the who, what, when, and where in the first couple of sentences.
If you are beginning with a story about a personal experience, then you might start with a sentence such as, “About two years ago, I was working on a similar project with Joe and Steve in Dallas…” That type of beginning gets people’s attention.
The “Who, What, When, Where” is a fast and easy way to get your audience’s attention quickly and to get the specifics of your talk out to your audience in a clear and concise manner. This type of introduction works extremely well, especially if you begin your speech with an anecdote or a personal story.
Another way of getting attention quickly is to start at the most impactful part of your report. Movie makers have learned this lesson. If you watch a classic film, it will probably follow a timeline such as this where there is an introduction that slowly builds to a climax and then the movie ends in a conclusion that ties everything up in a nice little bow.
Movies today don’t have that luxury. If some type of action isn’t happening in the first few minutes, many moviegoers may get up to leave. The new timeline might look something like this.
We can use this same technique in our talks as well. We can start at the most impactful part of our report, and then fill in details later as we need to. For example, if we are leading a safety meeting, we might start with an opening like, “32 people lost a limb, 12 people were decapitated, and eight people died last year because they forgot to do one simple thing.” Or if we are giving a financial report, we might begin with, “We were $32,000 under budget this quarter and this is how we did it.”
One thing that we have to remember as speakers is that we communicate in words, but our minds think in pictures. Therefore, even with as complicated and complex a machine as the human brain is, when we communicate, we need to focus on one specific point at a time.
Let me give you an example. Think about an elephant. What do you see in your mind? You have probably formed a picture in your mind of an elephant. You can see the trunk, the big ears, the leathery skin. Now think of the Statue of Liberty. What do you see in your mind now? Do you see the statue? Can you see the torch and the green discoloration of the copper? The big question, however, is where did the elephant go? Your picture of the Statue of Liberty probably replaced the picture of the elephant. When we know that this is how our mind works, then we can use it to our advantage when we speak.
Rather than having ten main points or twenty main points, our maximum number should be five. In most cases, three is a better number, and for short talks, we should have no more than one main point. The bulk of your talk should be built around supporting each of these main points.
The reason we want to limit our main points is simple. An old Chinese proverb says, “Man who chase after two rabbits catch none.” It’s the same with speaking. If we cover ten different items in a cursory fashion, our audience is likely to remember none of them. But if we focus on one main item and support our idea with evidence, our audience is more likely to retain the information.
“But aren’t there times when we need to cover more key points?” I’m sure that there are certain times where the above guideline doesn’t fit, but they are rare.
I’ve had people ask me, “Sure, that sounds good, but what about on a bid presentation? We need to get across to the audience that we are good at quality, timeliness, staying under budget, safety, experience, teamwork, and a myriad of other things. How do we get all of that across in three main points?” My answer is always the same… “You don’t. Out of all of those things that you mentioned, one is definitely going to be the most important to the decision-makers. If you can find out what area of interest that is, and you build your presentation around it, you have almost a 100% chance of getting the job, because your competition is likely to have a watered down presentation covering everything.”
My advice is always to ask questions of the decision-makers before creating your presentation to find out which of the areas that you could focus on would be the ONE most important to these decision-makers. The bulk of your presentation should be focused on this one thing. Then, find out what is second-most-important and give that point a little less time. Do the same with the third-most-important. (It’s best to focus on three just in case the thing we have determined is most important turns out not to be.) If you can prove to the group beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are capable of accomplishing the top three things that are most important to these decision makers (and your competition doesn’t) you have a very good shot at winning the bid.
This technique can be used with any presentation. If you start by designing your talk focusing on the number one most important thing to your audience, then the people listening to your talk will be all ears. You’ll be telling them exactly what they want to hear and what they need to hear.
“What about meetings? We always have a minimum of ten things we have to cover in our meetings.” This is going to seem harsh, but if you are trying to cover that many topics in your meetings, then your meetings are probably VERY long and boring, and your meetings probably don’t accomplish much. Narrow the agenda down and see if you get better results. If you don’t, go back to the way you were doing them before.
Whether you are in a meeting, or any presentation really, the whole reason for narrowing your points down to just a few main topics, is that this process makes the conclusion so much easier. If you have narrowed your topic down to three key points, then your conclusion could be as simple as a summary. “So in summary, my three main points are 1, 2, and 3.” By doing your conclusion this way, you are refreshing the memory of your audience as well as tying a nice bow around the information you just presented to them.
Another option for your conclusion would be to ask your audience to take some type of action especially if you are trying to persuade your audience. Of course when you ask them to take this action, it’s always a good idea to let them know how they will benefit from doing what you ask.
An example of this type of conclusion would be, “Based on what we’ve just covered, I’d ask you to…, and if you do that, then you will get…” More on this in Chapter Five: Being Persuasive.
Whichever way you decide to conclude, prepare your final words in advance and be clear and concise. Limit your conclusion to just a couple of sentences and you will have great success.
The tips above are only valuable if you create the habit of using them on a consistent basis. The Fearless Presentations ® class is a step-by-step approach to consciously and consistently applying these and other presentation skills to reduce fear and nervousness. If you feel fear, nervousness, or anxiety when you speak, please take a look at attending one of our classes. We offer them every couple of months in major cities all over the world!