Before you dive into the details of your next presentation and start preparing your PowerPoint and stressing about how it will go . . .
Ask yourself a more important question.
A question that far-too-few people ask.
How will I earn their attention?
Because if they aren’t paying attention, your message will be lost.
This has always been an important question, but in our frantic, internet and gadget-filled lives, it is now absolutely critical.
If you don’t earn their attention, email, Twitter or something else will.
Here is the bottom line – the best presentation in the world is meaningless if no one is listening.
Answering our question then: “how will I earn their attention?” is critical to our communication success (and let’s face it, our ego too). Here are some ways to do exactly that. . .
It’s about earning, not getting. Let’s start with the question itself. Most people, if this even crossed their minds, would think about how they can get someone’s attention. You really want to earn it. You don’t want people to feel tricked or duped. You don’t want to get their attention and then not deliver (more on that later). If you want people to put down their phones and listen to your message, you must come to this task with the goal to serve them and their needs. Think about how to earn their attention, which requires you to do the next point . . .
Put yourself in their shoes. This isn’t about what excites you about the topic or what you think is important. (You’ve been to plenty of presentations where the expert cared, but you saw no relevance, right?). Repeat after me: This isn’t about me; it’s about my audience. So get to know their situation, their needs, their interest, and their perspective. There is more you want to know (and I will highlight them before we are done), but this is a good start. Remember you are giving the presentation for their benefit, so everything about your design and delivery needs to be about them.
Attention follows interest. Think about it. You will partly watch the TV while you do something else, until YOUR show is on. You will listen-with-one-ear to the lunchtime conversation until it is important to you. Attention is a valuable commodity; it is the use of the finite resource of our time. You will earn people’s interest once they are interested in what the topic means to them. Which means you must put yourself in their shoes and get to know their needs so you can address them directly. When people know that what is coming is of interest to them, they will listen. So make sure you let them see that connection.
The data alone won’t do it. Sorry to all of the data wonks and people who consider themselves critical thinkers; the data is important, but alone it is never enough. Human beings are emotional beings and so to earn attention (and therefore interest), we must do more than craft the perfect logical argument or the most beautiful pie chart. Let people see, or help them discover what is in it for them, and why this should matter to them. Think about human needs and not just logic. When you do that, you will earn their attention and be more excited to share with them too.
Pain before pleasure. Study after study shows that people would rather avoid loss than hope for gain. We remember negative things longer than positive ones. We buy more aspirin than we do vitamins. So when people see how your message will remove pain, stress or frustration, they will be more attentive. If you can help them avoid uncomfortable or unsavory things, they will more likely be with you. This one is hard to remember if you are a generally positive person, or if you are motivated by the possibility of gain. Even if that is you, remember the mantra, remove pain first, then extol the positive possibilities.
It’s the message, not the tactic. There are plenty of tactics that might be a big enough surprise to get people to listen to you at the start. While a tactic like the right joke, a simple magic trick or banging your shoe on the table (a la Nikita Khrushchev), might be enough of a pattern interrupt for people to look up and listen, it isn’t enough to hold them with you for the message you want to share. After all, you don’t really want them to remember the joke but miss your message, do you?
For your next presentation, start with these ideas and your strategies for using them, not by firing up PowerPoint. It will seem like it is taking you longer at first, but you will get a much better result when you are through.

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