Fall is officially here and it’s time to put away the pails, shovels and sunscreen and get back to work. For speakers, it’s one of the busy seasons, and so your speech and delivery better be in tip-top shape, ready for those jaded audiences and their famously shrunken attention spans. I’ve had several questions lately about how neuroscience can help extend those attention spans and engage those brains better. So what follows is a quick primer – five insights into the speaker’s world and how to succeed better through an understanding the human mind.
First, get your body language sequence right. It’s counter-intuitive, but we gesture before we think, consciously. Or, to put it another way, we gesture to find out what our unconscious minds really want us to do. So, the proper sequence of gesture and speech is to gesture first, then speak. The difficulty is that if you’re thinking about your gestures consciously, that will tend to slow them down. And thus you’ll be likely to gesture after the idea or word you’re relating the gesture to. And that looks fake. Audiences don’t pick it up consciously, but unconsciously it looks stilted and insincere. They’ll be likely to rate you low on authenticity, engagement, and so on. Always gesture first.
Second, invoke those emotions. Our brains basically remember everything. But then they start discarding. Only memories that are attached to strong emotions (and recalled often) get remembered clearly. If you want your audience to remember something, you must – must – attach a strong emotion to it. Facts alone won’t cut it. You need emotion too. Wrap a strong story around anything you want your audience to care about and take away.
Third, mix it up. If you really, really want an audience to remember something, let them experience what you’re telling them in several different ways. Tell a story, a joke, get them to ask questions or share with their neighbors, throw a beach ball at them, make them catch it and tell you what you just said – anything within reason to change up your approach and come at the audience with several different kinds of engagement. And no, slides don’t count. There’s no compelling evidence that slides help retention.
Fourth, help your audience prioritize. Pity the poor human brain, remembering everything. Help it along by giving your audience hierarchies of importance, numbers and signals of how essential things are. Feel free to say, “If you remember only one thing today, make it this. . . .” The idea is to help all those brains out there in the audience trying to remember everything by saying to them, “here are some things you can forget.”
Finally, end strong by getting your audience to move. OK, I’ve cheated a bit here; that’s really two ideas. Audience tend to remember the last thing they hear (if they remember anything) so make sure your closing has something important in it. But recall point number one – if we move on some idea or thing, we’re likely to think it must be important. Getting your audience to dance its way out of the auditorium while singing a little ditty about your message might be the cheesiest idea you’ve ever attempted to pull off, but the audience would remember it.
Knowing a few facts about the science of the brain can help you succeed during this busy fall speaking season. And break a leg!