I was at a conference in San Antonio last year where a woman gave a talk that came off like bragging and name-dropping. She used a corporate slide deck formatted with a large company logo. Her presentation was glossy. It was a sales pitch.
Build for the Attention Dip
The woman who followed her spoke about a captivating idea with great potential for everyone. She opened in an interesting way, she shared some stories, included just enough compelling data, and pulled the idea through it all like a drawstring. She tied it up succinctly. The presenter was genuine–and funny. This speaker knew the timeless wisdom behind building a memorable presentation.
The Presentation Open
When you stand to begin your presentation, the attention in the room is high—Perhaps as high as it ever will be. Typically, people open a conversation in a lackluster, low-energy way: “I’m very excited to be with you this evening and I’d like to thank blah, blah, blah. Our (company) is the premier blah, blah, blah.”
Almost immediately the audience’s attention begins to slide, and if it slides too far, the attention will fall into what we call “the Valley of Irrelevance.” This is where the devices come out and people begin checking email—or they get up and go to the bar.
So how do you stay out of the dip? First, open by saying something interesting—immediately. This prevents any downturn in attention. The most compelling speakers introduce the topic quickly and explain why it’s important.
Here’s an Example of an Open That Does Just That
Building the Bridge During Your Presentation
Once you’ve opened in an interesting way, you have us in your hand. But how do you continue to bridge across the dip and keep the attention level high? You won’t get far if you don’t have a compelling idea to talk about, such as Americans dying from the food they eat. Not all talks will be that dramatic, you get the picture.
Take the advice of Dr. John Medina and balance your factual content with a story. Stories engage people. A memorable presentation creates an experience for listeners. Refer to the bridge and you’ll notice it suggests that you organize your content into three focus areas, since the number three has an organizing power in the brain. To hold up these three “pylons,” thread the language of story throughout using metaphors, examples, illustrations, metric analogies, pithy quotes, etc.
The Presentation Close
At the close of your talk, the attention level in the room peaks again as listeners anticipate a summary or call to action. One of the worst mistakes a presenter can make is to close by saying, “So that’s about it. Any questions?” All the energy drains out of the room and people dive toward the door.
Instead, repeat or rephrase your open, ask a rhetorical question, invite noble thinking that will change the future, make a specific ask. Don’t rush off. Pause for a moment and walk off tall.
The Interact Bridge in Action
Stories provide an experience for those listening. When you tell a story, don’t resolve that story too soon to leverage the curiosity gap. Listeners stay engaged because they sense a surprise is coming. By opening a gap, or hole in the storyline, you’ve invited listeners to lean in closer to learn more. Here’s an abbreviated example of the bridge in action.
In the 80’s I was working in syndicated television in Nashville, Tennessee. My office was in the spanking new Nashville Network building beside the new Grand Ole Opry house. These were thrilling times. Cable television was hot. TNN was hot. There were country music stars in the building every day.
A Chance Encounter
On moving day, I met a tall, lanky fellow from Georgia working in the mailroom. He helped me with my boxes and ordered the supplies I needed. In those days I was too busy to invest in friendships or put any faith in people who came from the mailroom. But this fellow was funny and friendly with a sideways grin. I loved looking up and seeing him lean against my door frame. He made me laugh.
We Are All Frustrated Artists
One day he said to me, “You know, this is just a temporary job. I’ve got a recording contract and it looks like they’re going to make me a star.” “Oh,” I said, rolling my eyes, “You’re a frustrated artist.” I judged him to be like every valet parker, busboy, and waitress in Nashville. They’re all looking for stardom. Inwardly I thought, “Oh brother.” Alan paused for a moment and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I guess we’re all frustrated artists,” he answered. Compelling information about the on-going pursuit of innovation in business and how to provide an environment that allows one to thrive within high-performance teams. By ‘89 I had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to work for WSOC-FM and Cox Broadcasting. One morning I picked up the latest “Radio & Records,” an industry publication. I stopped short. On the bottom of the front page, there was a banner ad that read: “Arista Records presents Alan Jackson!” There he was, in a big cowboy hat with that sideways grin.
I have a picture of me with Alan Jackson in my office. It’s there to remind me, every time I see it, that I am an artist. The rest of what I do is secondary. By now you would think that everyone has heard the best advice about PowerPoint: Keep it simple; don’t present us with eye charts; keep it simple; limit the overall number of slides, and don’t use your slides as your notes. Yet oddly enough, we see presenters making the same mistakes over and over.
Many of the most engaging presenters go without slides. But if you have photographs or colorful and simple illustrations that give your message depth, they can enhance your impact.
Taking Your Next Steps
Building a powerful presentation requires more than having a great idea. It requires bridging the attention dip.