Between my talks and seminars and the university courses I’ve taught, I get to speak in public a fair amount.
We all know one of the main challenges of public speaking is keeping the audience engaged — a bigger one being how to recapture an audience’s attention if you lose it.
Here’s a trick that works every time. Although doing it can challenge you more than you think you can handle (another reason to do it) if you aren’t comfortable with yourself.
I learned it giving talks on entrepreneurship — mainly talking about starting Submedia. Sometimes my talks required talking about troubling times — when the company nearly went bankrupt, when the Board argued and fought, when we couldn’t make important deadlines, when funding sources made it impossible to get funds in time for the business to succeed, etc. Preparing for those talks took a lot of emotional energy. Then giving the talks stressed me out, in front of an audience, no less.
I noticed that those parts of those talks generated the most attention and questions from the audience. People like hearing about borderline failures, harrowing experiences, disasters, and the things we generally prefer not to share. And generally people don’t share them, even though we all know anyone successful had to go through them.
So I taught myself a rule:
The more gut-wrenching a story, the more people like it.
Or to put it another way
If you’re losing an audience, tell a story about a disaster you went through — the more gut-wrenching, the more they’ll like it.
When you say something like, “I realized the whole company was at risk when the department head our entire business depended on started yelling at me and if I didn’t think fast things would get worse quickly,” you can sense the room move forward in the seats. I figure the audience starts wondering: People yelling in a business environment? A whole company at risk? How can you think fast at times like that? What did you do?
The practice fits with a pattern I observed and wrote about before:
People who aren’t good at something talk about how awesome they are at it.
People who are great at something talk about the humiliations and failures that got them good at it.
The practice also helps keep you humble and helps you learn from your mistakes.