Hold their Attention

Have you ever felt like people aren’t listening to you? I hate that! If so, you have caught a rampant disease. The cure takes some practice, but the diagnosis is incredibly simple. The simple reason people don’t listen to you is that they think they already know what you are going to say.

The Disease

The disease is: PREDICTABILITY. When you start talking the listener is asking 4 subconscious questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What are you saying?
  3. How are you saying it?
  4. Why should I care?

The millisecond the listener’s subconscious brain thinks it knows the answer to those 4 questions, the “listener” tunes you out.

blood cells and viruses (Newscom TagID: ipurestockx098796) [Photo via Newscom]Their boredom is the symptom; your predictability is the disease.

Unfortunately, our academic system teaches you to be predictable on purpose. Teachers who don’t know any better, tell you to be as predictable as possible, which is just another way of guaranteeing boring presentations and lackluster public speaking skills.

Warning: Boring Example Below!

Good morning team. The boss has asked me to review the company timekeeping policies …

That’s how most team meetings start. Let’s see what’s happening inside the listener’s subconscious:

  1. Who is talking? – My supervisor. I know this guy.
  2. What is he saying? – Company policies. I already know those.
  3. How is he saying it? – Obviously he’s just reading the handbook. Been there, done that.
  4. Why should I care? – I don’t.

95% of the room zones out the second they hear the words “timekeeping policies.”

My name is Michael. I’m going to show you today why our product is the best value …


I’m here to ask for your investment in …


Here’s a slide with today’s meeting agenda.
First we will …


When you start with any cliche, overused introduction, 4 things happen:

  1. They think they know who you are even if the don’t, because you sound just like everybody else.
  2. You tell them in advance what you’re going to say and they immediately replace your message with their pre-formed expectations.
  3. You look and sound just how everybody else looks and sounds.
  4. It sounds impersonal and impertinent. They don’t care.

The Need for Predictability

Your boss might even tell you to follow some boring template or presentation outline. Your boss probably thinks he or she is doing the right thing and helping you by providing a template.

Bad presenters need the hand holding. Good presenters who follow the same template sound like bad presenters.

2 + 2 = 4

For someone like you though–someone who is making efforts to get to the next level–no amount of practice, workshops, or presentation tips will take away the boredom if you insist on conforming to some rigid expectations.

If you are following some rigid outline 100%, then you are 100% predictable. Following those predictable formulas makes you 100% replaceable. At the drop of the hat, you can be fired and replaced.

Fast food workers follow strict procedures. Assembly line workers follow strict process guidelines. Nurses adhere to an exact regimen.

Do you know why?

Because in every case the company wants you to be predictable and replaceable.

When a fast food worker quits, the management wants to be able to hire an immediate replacement. If someone on the assembly line gets sick, any other worker can step in as a replacement. When the nurse’s shift ends, a new nurse can take over even if they don’t know your name.

Some businesses treat public speaking this way too. But if YOU treat it that way, you are speaking your way out of a job. In communication, you must prove your worth above and beyond the performance of the robotic masses.

The communicator who stands out, moves up! The speaker who makes the impression gets the promotion. The presentation that’s significantly different is usually significantly better.

Your boss might think he or she wants predictability from you, but your boss will only complain if your unpredictability isn’t better than your coworkers’ sea of conformity.

The Cure for Predictability

Lots of people that I coach have a really hard time swallowing this medicine. If you don’t like to make waves, or if you just want to get the job done without drawing too much attention, you can never cure the disease.

2 + 2 = 22

To cure the disease you have to be willing to try something completely different.

Something has to be unpredictable!

1. WHO you are?

You have to show the part of your personality that makes you UNIQUE, not only the part that makes you the same as everybody else.

If the audience already knows you, then do something new and different. “Who are you and what have you done with [insert your name]?” is a HUGE compliment.

2. WHAT you say

Don’t tell them your main point in advance. Don’t tell them anything they think they already know. Make them wait for it.

If your message is truly unique, you don’t have to worry about predictability. If you must rehash familiar material, don’t reveal it all up front, keep them guessing.

3. HOW you say it

If you have to cover a predictable WHAT, then HOW you say it is the best way to be unpredictable.

If you say the predictable, “Once upon a time there were three bears …,” then everybody falls asleep.

You have to change it in some way that fits your personality: three coworkers, three drawings on the board, three different voices, three bears as Yoda, changed grammar, etc. Anything appropriate goes. Just don’t do it the same way as everybody else.

4. WHY the listener cares 

Lastly, here’s a secret:

Unless you tell them why they should care, they won’t!

Unpredictably Great

Nobody is asking you to be the most creative, most funny, or most eloquent public speaker. All I’m asking you to do, is to be different. Be unique. Be unpredictable.

In my SpeechDeck public speaking skills system, there are three primary skills needed to “Inject anticipation” (be unpredictable): curiosity, opposition, and novelty.

This post is primarily about Novelty. As long as you keep it novel (new and fresh) you will keep their attention.

What you actually do and say matters less than the uniqueness of WHAT you say, and the novelty of HOW you say it. If I were your coach, I’d look for just 2 things:

  1. Is it unique?
  2. Is it true to yourself?

If both answers are yes, the disease is cured. Instead of the cancer of predictability spreading contagiously throughout the room, you’ll see contagious interest spread instead.

Contagious attention — when you master that elixir, you’ll be worth a fortune!

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