Sunday, December 14, 2014

Tick Tock: 30 Seconds to Connect

Somehow it feels thrilling and frightening at the same time, like when you stand too close to the edge of a cliff.  Your heart starts thumping, the air passages to your lungs expand, your blood pressure increases, the pupils in your eyes enlarge, and your blood glucose levels fluctuate, all because the stress-triggered hormone adrenaline is flooding your bloodstream.  Your body is preparing to deal with a nerve-racking, physically demanding situation, all because inside the packed convention center ballroom you have just been introduced as the next speaker. You stride purposefully to the podium; the applause dies down and the room goes silent with anticipation. You take a deep breath and look out at the audience.  They look back at you--curious, and expectant.  You are on the verge of doing something that most humans fear more than death: public speaking. 

Not long after I graduated from college and started working, I enrolled in the Dale Carnegie Course in Effective Speaking and Human Relations. I had heard tremendous things about the program and I really wanted to become one of those people who was always ready, willing and able to stand up and speak when necessary, no matter what the situation. At the first Dale Carnegie session, there were people in the class who were so terrified of speaking in front of an audience that they could not even stand alone at the front of the room.  At the end of the course three months later, the instructor could barely get those same people to stop speaking and sit back down! I learned a lot in that course by delivering two or three talks a week (often on topics assigned just minutes before), getting feedback, and giving feedback. In the years since I've spent a large part of my working life delivering, listening to and critiquing presentations.  So when I work with students now to help them become more effective presenters, I always share this Dale Carnegie quote with them:
A talk is a voyage with purpose, and it must be charted. The man who starts out going nowhere generally gets there.
Almost anyone can conquer their fear of public speaking with appropriate coaching and practice, but conquering the fear doesn't necessarily make you a good speaker--it just makes you a more comfortable speaker. If you haven't framed your message, polished your content, and planned your delivery carefully you might be able to blather long enough to fill your time slot, but you'll end up nowhere, as in no audience connection and no message delivered.

Years ago, folks weren't too concerned about messaging during the opening of a talk.  The prevailing wisdom was that audiences didn't really hear anything a speaker said at the beginning because they were too busy processing the speaker's non-verbal signals: facial expressions, gaze and eye contact, clothing, haircut, shoes, posture, gestures, etc.  So since the audience wasn't listening anyway, speakers were encouraged to use that time to get comfortable at the podium, smile, relax, maybe chatter a bit. You know--thank the person who did the introduction, thank the meeting sponsor for the invitation, describe how wonderful it is to be there, tell a joke, make witty comments about the weather, or the travel challenges encountered on the way to the venue, or the local sports team. Then, dive in to the speech.

That chatty style of opening is still being used (I saw two speakers use it last week, with predictable results) but I think it is fair to say that it probably worked better 20 years ago than it does now.  Back then, audiences were usually captive, they seemed to have longer attention spans, and they certainly didn't have what Dr. Carmen Taran of Rexi Media calls "digital pacifiers" in their pockets (or on their wrists) capable of providing them with a dizzying array of distracting alternatives to listening to the speaker.

If you believe, as I do, that audiences today are ruthlessly inattentive victims of information overload, then as a speaker with a message to communicate, you must do something to capture their attention quickly, within 30 seconds according to the experts (check out Better Beginnings by Carmen Taran and The Best Way to Start a Presentation by Nick Morgan.) Sounds difficult, but it really isn't--good speakers do it all the time. Television commercial producers routinely do it to sell products and services. Writers do it by inserting intriguing first lines in novels and articles to get you to keep reading. 

Let's break it down. If you think of a talk as having three phases--opening, body, and conclusion--in a 20 minute talk the opening might be 3 minutes, the body 15 minutes, and the closing 2 minutes.  So in the first three minutes, a speaker needs to accomplish three things:
1. Hook the audience within 30 seconds. Grab their attention, engage and enroll them in what you are about to do.
2. Lay out your approach and establish your credentials. What do you want the audience to know, do and feel at the end of your talk? How and why are you qualified to talk on this topic?
3. Provide a compelling answer to the audience's unspoken question: Why should I listen to you, and if I do, what is in it for me?
Next time you prepare to give a talk, focus on energizing the first 30 seconds of your opening. The best way to do that is to supercharge the communication environment by pushing or luring listeners out of their comfort zone and into their learning zone.  Surprise the audience somehow, throw them off balance, interrupt their inertia. Replace the expected with the unexpected. Create suspense and drama. Open with a provocative question or quote. Make an outrageous statement. Tell a powerful personal story. Share your view on a controversial aspect of your topic and ask for a show of hands of those who agree, or disagree. Do a show and tell with a compelling object, photo, news story or statistic. Challenge a widely held belief, or a sacred cow. Make a bold prediction and tell the audience to write it down.  Or even offer the audience something helpful and irresistible, as Amy Cuddy did in the opening line of her extremely popular (22 million views) TED Talk on body language.

For other potentially useful details and examples, check out these resources:
Finally, since capturing an audience's attention is one challenge, and holding it is another, you might also enjoy speech and presentation coach Sims Wyeth's brief overview of techniques to help you keep the connection going. And never, ever forget this practical speakers' maxim:

Each of us here has a job to do. My job is to talk and yours is to listen. The challenge is for me to finish my job before you have finished yours.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on property casualty insurance claims and operations.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for sharing these links, I thinks they help a lot of people. is a service that I use for improving my speech!