3 Ways to Fascinate Your Audience
Awhile back, my family and I visited the middle-of-nowhere podunk town of Goldendale, WA and its observatory. The girls got to reposition the telescope, we looked at the sun (through filters, of course) and Sirius, and then listened to a two-hour presentation on the telescopes and the sun.
The craziest part? We could not believe when we left that the talk had been two hours long.
Two hours is a LONG time to sit still and listen, especially for kids, and especially when the subject is something as technical and potentially boring as cosmology, fusion, and nuclear physics. And yet, the presenter kept our interest so well during his talk that we scarcely noticed time flying by. How did he do it? Here’s how:
Who knew the difference between a sodium-filled light bulb and a mercury-filled light bulb could be funny? Not I. But this guy had us laughing at science, at his presentation, and at his own quirky personality through the entire thing.
In his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson says the best way to appeal to your audience is to move your discussion down through the body. Most scientists—and lawyers, and computer geeks, and other very smart people, like you—get stuck in their heads. But no one else cares what’s going on in your head. To make them care enough to listen (let alone act), you have to get out of your head and “into your heart with sincerity, into your gut with humor, and, ideally, if you’re sexy enough, into your lower organs with sex appeal” (pg. 18).
Observatory guy didn’t get all the way to sex appeal, thankfully. (We had our kids with us, after all.) But he definitely got us in the gut through humor. If you’re a brainy person, you may resent that people want to be entertained. And if you don’t want anyone to do anything with your ideas, fine. You can continue to communicate purely intellectually with other intellectuals. If you want to get people behind you and your ideas, though, get ‘em in the gut.
What’s the quickest way to put someone to sleep? Force them to sit still and then read to them in a monotone. The most boring classes you remember slogging through weren’t rendered boring by the subject matter, but by the speaker.
The presentation we sat through in Goldendale included visually stunning filtered video of sun flares and prominences, real-time viewings of the sun through their telescope, and interactive experiments. In addition, the presenter asked us in the audience questions all the time (and good naturedly made fun of our answers—see above). Get your audience involved!
If you are delivering a speech and can’t actually get your audience to speak or move due to the venue, there are plenty of other ways to engage the brain. For example:
- Tell a story. Stories engage ALL parts of the brain. However, you have to use vocal inflection or you’ll just put people to sleep.
- Ask questions. Even when the audience can’t answer, ask rhetorical questions and pause so they have a chance to think of an answer. It forces them to participate, albeit silently.
- Paint a picture. Use vivid details to arouse the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- Use actual pictures. If you’re using a PowerPoint, for goodness’ sakes, don’t fill each slide with words and then read. <snore>
- Try metaphors and analogies. This gets the brain fired up in ways that straight data can’t. People start making connections and deriving actual meaning from what you’re saying… woo-hoo!
The best science teacher I had in high school was Mr. Wilson, who was just so freakin’ excited about how cool science was. The presenter in Goldendale was the same way. He obviously looooooved his job and thought cosmology was the most important and exciting study in the world. (Or, perhaps, in the cosmos? Heh.)
If you don’t care about what you’re doing, why should anyone else? If you care, let it show. Don’t use your passion as a means of manipulating others into giving you what you want—“Because I care, you should, too!”—but do let it show. Passion without an agenda is extremely attractive.
That’s the irony, though. You HAVE an agenda. If you want people to pay attention, jump on board, and move forward with your plan, you need to get their attention and inspire action. You can do that by using humor, involving your audience, and communicating passion.