An article published by TIME magazine in 2015 quoted research from Microsoft implying that humans now have an attention span of just 8 seconds – which is allegedly less than that of a goldfish.
Having attempted to validate this, I can’t find any factual evidence to support the allegation (see more here) – but what I do know as fact is that if you DON’T capture your audience’s attention with the very first thing that comes out of your mouth when public speaking, there is an extremely high likelihood that they will be looking at their phones, checking their email or browsing social media before you draw your next breath!
Over the last 5 years I have delivered over 500 keynotes, presentations and briefings to audiences varying in size from small groups of 5 to packed conference rooms of over 2,000. During this time I have read countless articles and watched countless videos and live presentations in a continuing effort to improve my own performance.
Following a recent keynote, I was asked by an aspiring public speaker what my “Top Tips” were. She was very comfortable with delivering powerpoint presentations as status updates within the company she was working in, but she realised that being asked to deliver an inspirational keynote would require a different approach – especially as people were paying an entry fee to attend the event she had been asked to present at.
I distilled my learning to date into 7 key points that I felt would help her provide the most impact on her first outing:-
1) Start with an impactful statement
You need to dive straight in and grab the audience’s attention right from the start – make them look up from their phones and stop what they are doing – even if it’s just to go “WTF????” Obviously it should be something that is relevant to your audience and should set the scene and tone for the rest of your talk.
DO NOT begin with “my name is” or read out the title of your talk! I can’t count how many times I have seen the master of ceremonies or host give the audience an introduction to the next speaker (including their name, job title, company they work for and perhaps even a short back story) only for the speaker to then come on stage and say “my name is XXX and I’m the YYY of company ZZZ” – COME ON!!!!!!!
If you are presenting with a projector then the first slide can / should include all of the above inane details and even if not, the event probably lists you in a brochure or running order – the majority of the audience WILL KNOW WHO you are – and if they don’t yet then there are loads more ways to get the message across (see later tip under “images) and if they still don’t know who you are by the end of your talk they will make an effort to find out providing you have had an impact on them.
So don’t start with your name – please, just don’t.
2) Establish your credentials
Once you have their attention, the audience needs to know why they should continue to listen to you. This isn’t necessarily your job title, although many people will line up to hear from the CEO / CMO / CXX of most major corporations in the hope they will have something insightful to say purely based on their job title. This should rather be a brief explanation of what you have done / are going to do / your experience in or of the particular topic you are going to talk about – giving the audience a solid reason to give up their precious time to listen to you in the expectation of the value they will receive in return.
Consider saying something like “I have done ABC and the result of that is XYZ” or “my goal is ABC and I’m going to share with you how I tackle XYZ” – something that will make the audience think “hey, I want to hear about this!”.
Always remember that a public keynote is a value exchange – this is very unlike a “corporate update presentation” setting in which you have a captive audience that is being paid to listen to you – or at least sit there and pretend.
3) Communicate the “Rules of Engagement” for the session
Are you going to welcome interruptions and questions or defer them until the end? If you have been allocated a specific time slot to deliver a carefully crafted keynote and you overrun your allocated time, it is extremely disrespectful to your event host, your fellow speakers AND the audience. It’s fine to take questions during your session if you have allowed for this and perhaps you intend to run it as an interactive conversation – but be careful of being diverted off your path and being unable to deliver your message due to your time running out.
4) Tell them a story
People respond to stories better than lectures. You need to know your audience well and craft a storyline that will resonate with them – one in which they can picture themselves as the hero, the villain, the protagonist, the victim and draw their own implications. You should aim to provoke their thoughts and inspire them into action.
There are many articles and resources to help you do this and as storytelling is in my DNA it’s a topic I am frequently asked to run workshops on – but that’s a post for another time (or you can just engage me to help you).
Find the story you have to tell – it’s in you and your audience will thank you for it.
5) Use images, not text
Despite what my wife frequently tells me, humans (of all sexes) are incapable of multitasking! If you use visual aids that are laden with text then people will read your slides instead of listening to you. It’s impossible for them to do both at the same time – the next time you watch the news, try reading the “ticker” at the bottom of the screen and then try to recall what the presenter just said – you can’t – and neither can your audience. Besides which, we can read faster than we can talk – so if you put up slides and then read what’s on them, your audience is already ahead of you and then they will “tune out” to what you’re saying. Once you’ve lost their attention to their phones and emails, you’re going to struggle to get it back.
When using Powerpoint (or any equivalent) in a “meeting” environment, most people cram their slides full of text, bullet points and complicated charts and graphs. These may be suitable for an in depth analysis of a topic in a setting where the audience can read the tiny font you have used – but it’s a mistake to use these same slides in an auditorium of a few hundred people – think carefully what it’s going to look like on a screen four or five times the size of you!
The trick is to use striking, relevant images that enhance and amplify the points you are making. A strong visual image (which can contain a single word or phrase) will focus the audience’s attention on you and your message. According to John Medina’s Book “Brain Rules”, audience retention of a text based message drops to only 10% after 3 days – but this increases to 65% with the addition of a strong visual image.
In our digitally obsessed age, strong imagery has another, far greater, benefit for public speakers – engaged audiences love to share photos of impactful images across social media – and if you include your Twitter (or any other preferred social media) handle on every image that you display, your reach will extend far beyond the boundaries of the room you are presenting in!
6) DITCH THE SCRIPT
There is only one way that anyone ever got good at anything – practise, practise, practise. You need to know your topic such that all you need are your visual cues and prompts. Rehearse until your delivery is smooth, but don’t do it parrot fashion. You will come across as far more authentic if you simply “get up and talk”.
Another distinct advantage to using images instead of text is that you can shorten or lengthen your delivery without impacting your message that perhaps was dependant on what the slides contained. Useful for when the previous speaker has overrun or when your host needs to claw back time. I was once allocated a 30 minute slot to deliver a briefing to a board of directors – 5 minutes in, the Chairman was alerted to an urgent situation that required the immediate attention of the board – he turned and told me “sorry, you have 5 more minutes to wrap it up” – I did it in 3 – think about how you would still deliver a message with impact if the same thing happened to you?
My notes consist of thumbnail images and a couple of bullet points to remind me of the main points I want to get across – but here is one of the biggest tips I was given very early on in my speaking career – “nobody knows what you were going to say but didn’t”.
Read that again and relax.
I have seen many presenters become completely unhinged when the “teleprompter” glitched or they lose their place in their “script”. I saw one presenter freeze for almost 2 minutes on stage while he desperately waited for technical help to get the teleprompter back to where it was supposed to be and I saw another bow his head and shuffle through a complete mess of cue cards which he dropped on the floor – both completely losing their audiences in the process.
It’s funny how the more you practise, the easier it gets ………
7) Close with 3 points
Never underestimate the power of “the magic of 3“.
People remember first what you said last – so make it count.
This is the only time I would break my own rule and include text – if you end on a powerful close with just 3 bullet points in summary (after you have said them of course – don’t let the audience read them first!) then you will leave a lasting impression on your audience.
So there you have it – my top tips for aspiring public speakers
(** UPDATE ** – since writing this article, I have been approached to share more information regarding public speaking which I have done on this page here – this isn’t linked to anywhere else on this site as it’s not how I earn a living and I share this information freely with all of you – I hope you find it useful).
Good luck – I hope to see you on stage soon.
(If you’d like to see the above advice put into practice then please take a look at what I do over here)
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