Today is your day. Your name comes up. You stand up. You are going to speak in few seconds. Everyone claps because that is what they are expected to do. You approach the speaking zone. You smile. You were waiting for this. All that hard work. You can’t wait to tell them of all your brilliant ideas. You look at them. This is it.

“Hello…” you say as you start your introduction.

Then you tell them who you are and why you want to speak. You go over the agenda, tell them about your company, yourself or how happy you are to be there. Then you continue…

Seems legit doesn’t it? After all, you have seen this many times. In fact, this how a typical “presentation” looks like.

The one question everyone is asking themselves

I am sure you heard before that it should not be about the speaker, but about the audience. This is about them. So, let’s ask them.

Just for sport, let’s look at this from the audiences perspective. It will be much shorter, I promise. How could it look for them?

He stood up. He is going to speak. Cool, but… what’s in it for me? That’s it. What’s in it for them.

Cool, but… what’s in it for me?

I’d challenge you to disagree that this is not what you are asking yourself several times a day, if not more often. You do. You are very much interested in how you can benefit from everything happening around you. We all do. We are one hell of an egoistic species. Who is your audience? Same species. Unless you are some kind of a druid, I presume you would be speaking to humans, most of the time. It’s not that they just want to know the answer to that question. They need it.

The moment you appear on the horizon and they mentally assimilate the idea that you expect their attention, they will ask themselves that question. Guess what happens when you don’t deliver the answer and do so quickly?

You’ve lost them.

They will look at you sure, but they will reject you. Not that they will be impolite. You will get your claps in the end. But don’t count on them following your lead. Why would they? They did not find a reason. It was not about them.

Tell the audience what’s in it for them

One of the worst mistakes you can make as a speaker/presenter/trainer/teacher (pick your thing) is to assume that the audience is going to quickly understand why they should follow your message and grant you their attention. They won’t. OK, maybe 5% will. But is 5% attention across the whole room acceptable for you?

Don’t leave it to chance or for the audience to figure this out themselves. Think about them like they the were kids and you are the parent. They don’t know what’s good for them, do they? They will resist your message even if accepting it would lead to the best things in life.

Be crystal clear about why they should listen to you, but remember, it has to be about them.

Fortunately, research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky provided us with surefire way to achieve that. Kahneman’s and Tversky’s studies on human behavior have led to many interesting conclusions. Among them are the Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion, both discussed in detail in Kahnemans’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

In short (and simplified), they have proven that everything humans do is motivated by one of two factors:

  • seeking pleasure or
  • avoiding pain

(I am perfectly aware that some people have this all mixed up but for argument’s sake let’s leave them out).

Hello Sir, Pleasure or Pain?

So I hear you say – “What? You want me to start talking about pleasure and pain during my speech?”

No you dummy. Look here how to use this to your advantage:

  1. Pleasure – tell them what they will gain if they will follow/listen to you
  2. Pain – tell them what they will lose if they won’t follow/listen to you

Pleasure and pain. Everything comes down to this. You should be able to fit any good reason (for which the audience should follow you) in one of these two categories. Everything else is just an extension of these two bad-boys in every speaker’s arsenal.

Interestingly, we have higher tendency to take action (or risk) to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. In other words given the choice, we rather protect what we have, than seek more gains. So in our case, if you tell them what they might lose or miss if they don’t give you their attention, should have a stronger effect.

Let me give you an example…

When I speak about the importance of becoming a better communicator, I would usually start with pain. I’d paint a picture of how the audience’s life is going to be diminished, how they will lose opportunities in life, how success is going to pass and never return (which I truly believe might be the case). Pain, pain, pain.

All of that is going to happen, should they not invest their attention into learning how to speak clearly, effectively and with confidence in front of others. Pain.

Am I deliverer of that pain? Of course not. I just happen to be there with the pain-killer. Luckily, this is exactly what I have in store for them coming up next during my show. Do you think I have their attention?

Do this next time

You can do the same. They need to know what’s in it for them. So tell them. Lay out the consequences in front of the audience and do so early. Whether it is pleasure or pain, when they ask themselves the dreaded question, make sure you have an overwhelming answer prepared. Give them an egoistic reason to listen.

Now tell me:

  • What’s in it for you? What do you think about when you listen to someone speaking?
  • How do you usually persuade people to give you their attention when speaking?

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
  • Friend of mine always use the statement at the beginning of the speech “I will share a secret with you about xxx(relates to training’s topic)… Or maybe not now, but somewhere during the training”. What is the impact? Everybody are focused and they are truly listening as they don’t want to lose the secret 🙂 the secret it’s their gain

    • That’s exactly right. That’s Loss Aversion. After all, what is a “secret”? It is something that only few know about. It’s scarce. If only few know about it, then those who know are, by definition, ahead of everyone else. Maybe this knowledge is putting them ahead? Wasting the opportunity to get to know what “only few know about” is framed as a loss by your friend. Smart fellow!