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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Do You Use The Rhetorical “Rule of Three”?

Well, you should.

I’m referring here to rhetorical device of organizing and presenting topics, words or phrases in groups of threes. Sadly, I neither discovered nor perfected the Rule of Three. But I intend to learn it, practice it and perfect it. (See, I did it right there.)

The Rule of Three enjoys a long history. Writing in the November, 2013 issue of Toastmaster, Washington, D.C.-based speaking consultant Denise Graveline reminds us that the Rule of Three “grew out of the ancient oral storytelling tradition. That tradition is the way we shared information before writing it. Over time, storytellers found that they and their listeners could most easily remember stories structured in three parts, which is why so many fairy tales have triads in them (think three little pigs or three blind mice).” (Id. at 16-17.)

Andrew Dlugan has written extensively on using the Rule of Three in his popular blog Six MinutesHe discusses and gives examples of two special “triad” variants: hendiatris and tricolon. “A hendiatris,” Dlugan writes, “is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a central idea.” Examples? Consider these:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.” – Julius Caesar (trans: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” – French motto
  • “Wine, women, and song.” – Anonymous

“A tricolon,” Dlugan tells us, “is a series of three parallel elements (words or phrases). In a strict tricolor, the elements have the same length but this condition is often put aside.” In addition to Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” Dlugan quotes advice Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to speakers: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

I’m not sure I ever gave the Rule of Three any serious thought before, though I recall my father, teaching me photography as a kid, talked about using patterns of three when composing a photograph. According to Dlugan, we can see examples of the Rule of Three at play throughout history: in religion (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), movies (Sex, Lies & VideotapeThe Good The Bad And The Ugly), politics (Executive branch, Legislative branch and Judicial branch of government; Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); sales or advertising (in real estate: Location, Location, Location). Of course we learn about triads in music theory, as well.

Even though I never gave much conscious thought to the Rule of Three, I think that, like most rhetorical conventions, it penetrated into my thinking and composition through the magical osmosis of reading good writing. Dr. Seuss, for example.

Whatever the source, I unconsciously used the Rule of Three when I created my dreaded “elevator speech.” As much as I think the 30 second elevator speech has no place in a normal conversation between people who have an IQ over, say, 50, you would be surprised how effective it is to have a well-crafted self-advertisement handy when you are at a business or networking event and everyone in the room is asked to introduce themselves and describe what they do. I find myself in these situations about once a week. My elevator speech, I’m not at all embarrassed (well , actually . . . I am a little embarrassed) to recite:

I’m Alex Craigie. I’m a Partner in the Los Angeles office of Dykema. My practice currently focuses on helping Southern California employers [1] prevent, [2] manage and [3] resolve employment disputes as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

An example of a hendiatris at work. I might vary parts of this to suit the audience. For example, if I’m working a room that doesn’t have a clue who or what a “Dykema” is, I might throw in that it is a “premiere Mid-West full-service law firm. ” No matter what, though, I always include my core description which centers around three verbs which describe what I do: I prevent, I manage and I resolve.

So think about invoking the Rule of Three.

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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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