Attention is a problem nowadays. I experience that first hand when speaking or training. Everyone is glued to their phone, shuffling through social media. I sometimes wonder how easy it must have been to be a great speaker, teacher or trainer in the pre-internet era. Lucky bastards…

Today, I come to class, session or lecture fully aware that my biggest competitor for audience’s attention is Facebook, or most recently Snapchat. I can tell you that if your goal when speaking is to make sure people remain with phones in hand, then by all means do what most people do.

Blend in.

You see,  people learn fast. They learn the quickest when the stimuli is repeated. Hence, the overused saying practice makes perfect (which is not true by the way… I will discuss it in another post).

Now ask yourself, how many times have you seen a presentation delivered in your life? A speech? Anyone making an organized effort to convey their idea to others? A lot, right? Everyday? If you work in any kind of office environment you probably already started wondering if over the last 30 years human beings completely lost their ability to express themselves without PowerPoint.

You are exposed to that stimuli a lot. And it is always the same… It starts the same way. Similar slides are used. Presenter always follows the same pattern.

And that’s where you turn off. You have seen it before.

Learn from your ancestors

We have survived as a species because of our brain’s ability to see and react to contrast.

Think about the times when your ancestor, let’s call him Mike, was running around the jungle with a spear. Hunting and collecting berries. I like berries. Let’s stay with this example.

Mike was going through the bushes, looking for some nice, fresh, juicy fruits. The jungle was filled with sounds of animals, enjoying the Sunday afternoon. Mike moved from bush to bush, relaxed. Peaceful and calm.

Suddenly, all the animals went silent.

Is Mike still collecting berries? No. He has stopped in motions. Froze. Face expression suddenly became focused. He listened carefully to whatever happens next. What happened?

Mike reacted to contrast.

The pattern of sounds changed. Something was different. He did not know what that was about. Was it something dangerous approaching? Tiger? T-Rex? Maybe it’s nothing? Yet, he needed to ensure his survival.

Mike was paying attention.

How to get their attention

Think about Mike. That’s exactly where you want your audience to be. Leaned in. Wondering what might happen to them should they not listen to you? What is going to happen if they will?

You have to make them stop collecting berries.

How do you do it? Break the pattern of what they expect. If they are your average corporate audience, they expect slides, agenda, project overviews and no inspiration. Start on a different note. Surprise them.

Here are 3 ways to start your show by breaking the pattern of audience’s expectation and tap into the ancient power of contrast.

1. Ask a provocative question

Questions work because human beings cannot not answer them. We may choose to not answer out loud, but it is quite difficult to order your brain to not think of an answer anyway. See for yourself.

  1. What car do you drive?
  2. What’s your partner’s name?
  3. What street do you live at?

You don’t have to tell me. It is enough that I know that your car, your partner and your place have all crossed your mind. However, to make people think about something longer than half a second, you need to up your questions game. You need to provoke them.

The best way to do it is to challenge their world’s status quo. Confront them with a problem they didn’t know they had. Give them two excluding options to consider. Position a known situation, but with an unexpected twist. Share an insight and ask for their reaction.

Think about Mike the Ancestor. What question can you ask your audience to trigger their survival mechanism?

2. Tell them a relevant story

Nothing captures attention like a good story. Since the dawn of times people used stories to entertain or pass information. The entertainment industry has remained true to these roots. Movies, games, books. It’s all about story-telling.

When it comes to passing information, in the last 30 years was a major step back. Everyone talks about data, facts and numbers. It’s boring. Yet, this the expectation of professionalism we have created ourselves.

Stories are data with a soul. Instead of delivering straight facts, weave them in a story. The key word here is relevant. Telling a story with no direct or indirect connection to your idea will not help much. I might be entertaining, but that’s it. Your goal is create a strong connection between a story and audience’s reality.

Introduce a hero, give him a name. Take the audience through his hero journey. His ups and downs. Finally, arrive at the moral of the story, which serves as a platform to expand on your core idea.

Stories are meant to be retold. You don’t need to be a writer. Just tell or expand on a story you have already heard and make it fit to your idea. You will get their full attention from the start.

3. Change the medium

PowerPoint is the norm. It has become a synonymous for a presentation. Most people, when tasked with delivering a presentation, start to design the title slide before they even know what it will be about.

Be different. Break the pattern of expectations. Ditch PowerPoint.

Show up, say hello, pick up a pen and write your core idea on the whiteboard. Survey answers to your question and capture them on the flip chart. Ask participants to join you on using and creating these visuals. Engage them.

With audience expecting slides, the contrast will be unbearable. They will not be able to ignore it. You will have their full attention.

Wrapping it up

Trying hard to deliver on what your audience expects is a suicidal speaker’s mentality.

Don’t kill yourself, please. I want you to live, speak and prosper. Remember about the berries. You need them to stop collecting the berries. Break the pattern of what they expect already in the begging. Be different. Surprise them. Everything will go better in your show when you have an attention grabbing start like that.

Now what I want to hear from you is this:

  1. How bored are you by even hearing the word presentation?
  2. When you will you try these simple ideas to open your next speech or presentation?
  3. You did? How did it go?

Leave a comment now.

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE