One Sure Way To Boost Audience Retention

We could debate for hours whether compelling public speakers are born with that gift or they achieve it through diligent practice. I suspect that, like many skills, it’s probably a bit of both. Few would disagree that everyone benefits from practice. Practice with honest feedback can be particularly helpful. This is why I’m a big fan of Toastmasters.

I think it’s probably also true that many speakers can sometimes make major improvements just by making a small tweak in the style, content, or both, of their presentation. Here I’m thinking about some advice I came across in Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter’s recent book, The Articulate Attorney (2nd Ed. 2013). They discuss the difficulties we encounter in maintaining audience attention. This problem is crucial if your goal in speaking is anything other than pure entertainment because it is unlikely your audience–a jury, for example–will process and retain anything you say if they’re not paying attention. Johnson and Hunter write:

“Listeners pay close attention to the beginnings of presentations. Minds often wander in the middle, and retention drops. When the listener gets a signal that the end is near–‘In conclusion . . .’–attention increases once again. Primacy is the first thing listeners hear; recency is the last.” (Id. at 85.)

I have elsewhere heard a variation on this observation, with the attendant advice that one should structure a presentation so that the really important information comes at the beginning and the end. I suppose that’s better than nothing. But the logical implication is that the information that comes between the beginning and the end is less important, or not important at all. I don’t know about you, but I try to leave information that is less important or unimportant out altogether. And we can’t very well just have a beginning and an end with no middle, can we?

Johnson and Hunter offer a superior alternative. They urge speakers to “chunk,” or divide larger bits of information into smaller chunks, which is easier for the human brain to receive, process and retain. Additionally, rather than a speech which consists of one strong beginning, a middle and one strong ending, they urge speakers to create several rather discrete chunks, each with its own beginning, middle and ending. They write:

“Since beginnings and endings are good, create more of them. Rather than conceive your presentation as having one beginning and one ending, clearly delineate each topic area. Begin new topics with a headline (begin/primacy) and explicitly mark the conclusion of the topic with a wrap-up (end/recency). When your major ideas are demarcated in this fashion, your presentation will have many beginnings and endings. Each time a new topic is headlined and closed out, the daydreaming (or emailing) listener’s attention is refreshed.” (Id. at 87.)

So go on, be a “chunker.”

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The Art of Planning to Forget What You’re Planning to Say

Do you share my occasional fear, when addressing a large group, whether it be a jury or a room full of potential clients, that I will forget what I’ve prepared to say? Go ahead, admit it.

Well, I’ve been wrong all of these years to be afraid of forgetting. According to Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter, authors of The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers, it’s not a question of whether I’ll forget, but rather how will I recover when I forget. Turns out that forgetting is inevitable.

“That you will forget periodically while speaking under pressure is a given. Think how easily you can lose your train of thought when conversing with your friends. You pause and confess, ‘I lost my train of thought. What was I talking about?’ If this happens regularly during casual conversation, it’s bound to happen during more formal presentations. The obvious solution? Plan to forget. Know that it is going to happen, and be prepared.” (Id. at 81.)

The authors offer a couple of intelligent strategies to plan to recover when you’ve forgotten. First of all, get comfortable with silence. This will not only make your recovery smoother when you forget, but I believe it will make you a better, more compelling speaker overall. If you’re comfortable with silence, you’re less likely to rush to fill empty, silent spaces, and more likely to use strategic pauses for dramatic effect. Whenever I see a skilled public speaker at the top of his or her game, I’m always impressed with their pacing and liberal use of pauses to maintain the audience’s interest or build dramatic effect.

If you become comfortable with silence, I suspect you’re also more likely to relax and remember what you think you forgot. The authors write, “pause long enough in silence to make sure you really can’t remember what you wished to say. The next thought may not quite be on the tip of your tongue, but it is almost certainly somewhere in your brain. Give yourself a moment to find it. ” (Id. at 82.)

Of course, if you really can’t remember, don’t sweat it. Give yourself a moment to review your notes. In this regard, the authors suggest making a “transitional utterance.” For example, if you’ve completed a thought and just can’t recall what’s next, perhaps say “Let’s move on” and consult your notes. “You are moving on, so it makes sense to refer to your notes to see what is next. Or, you can use the same line simply to stop and think.Your audience will understand what you are doing. You have announced that you are moving on, and they see that you are thinking.” (Id. at 81.)

If you can’t remember a precise fact, such as a date or dollar amount, the authors recommend handling it this way:

“Now the date the contract was signed [you suddenly can’t remember, so you say] . . . 

I want to get this exactly right [and return to consult your notes] . . . the date was September 17th.” (Id. at 82.)

The authors suggest that this strategy can actually enhance your credibility. When you review your notes, “[t]he audience sees such careful behavior as an indication of due diligence; it can even boost the speaker’s credibility.” Id.

So, next time you’re planning a presentation, don’t forget to plan to forget what you’re planning to say. (Do I sound like Dr. Seuss?)

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To Gesture Or Not To Gesture

“Some people cling to an old-fashioned, post-Victorian belief that gestures are inappropriate for public speaking. Law students and attorneys are often told to place their hands on the lectern or at their sides, because gestures distract the listener.” This observation comes from Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter, in their recent book, The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers (at p. 25).

I know I’ve received conflicting advice on this topic. And I’ve been on the receiving end of speeches in which the speaker gestured so freely and wildly that it was distracting and he came across like a crackpot. On the other hand, a speaker who remains so unnaturally still and wooden appears to lack both passion and conviction and, in most instances, will utterly fail to engage the audience.

Assuming you want to engage your audience, whether it is a jury deciding your client’s case, a panel of appellate justices, or a room full of potential clients, it’s a good idea, then, to make an earnest effort to not only use gestures, but to use them effectively. Lucky for us, Johnson and Hunter’s new book offers some valuable guidance in a section entitled “What Do You Do With Your Hands?”

First, they point out that “[g]esturing is not emotional or theatrical, but logical.” Id. at 27. “Gestures suit, or fit, the words being spoken, and the words logically fit the actions of our hands.”  Id. To achieve this logic, they advocate careful formulation of the first sentence of your speech. Even if you improvise much of the rest, it is a good idea to choose and practice the words with which you will begin, then practice fitting gestures to these words until you settle upon those that are most suitable. This allows you to “jump-start” the style of gesturing you will employ for the balance of the speech. As Johnson and Hunter write:

“At the very beginning of a presentation, the instinct to gesture can be as dead as a car battery at twenty below zero, frozen by self-consciousness, anxiety, or the erroneous belief that gestures are distracting. To jump-start your gestures, think of your brain as the energy source. Connect the metaphorical jumper cables of conscious thought to your instinct to gesture and turn the key. Deliberately gesture at the beginning, and suit the action to the word. Make sure your gesture engine is running.” Id. at 28.

Johnson and Hunter also advocate a style of gesturing that uses large gestures, involving the entire arm, which “move or flow through an area in front of the body called the ‘zone of gesture.’ This zone is a large space approximately two feet tall by four feet wide. It extends vertically from the waist to the nose.” Id. at 29. These larger, whole limb, gestures “avoid a common pitfall of nervous speakers: gestures with just wrists or forearms.” Id. at 31.

Finally, they address the question of what to do with your hands when you are not gesturing. Rather than the awkward crotch-blocking “fig leaf” position, in which the arms are fully extended, or the frigid, white-knuckled gripping of the lectern, Johnson and Hunter suggest we use what they call the “ready position.” Hands are “loosely touching at waist height. Hands and forearms are energized and ready to go, not pressed against the abdomen. The position is loose, not tight. A little bit of space separates the forearms from the abdomen.” Id. at 33. A principal advantage of this “ready position” is that, when you are not actively and intentionally gesturing, your hands become “invisible to most observers.” Id. at 35.

If none of this sounds particularly revolutionary, that’s probably because it’s not. As noted by Johnson and Hunter, that marginally famous writer Bill Shakespeare, speaking through the title character in Hamlet, instructed the players to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Id. at 27. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

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