Getting people to listen

Photo by Paulgi

I’ve often sat spellbound listening to a great speaker like Steve Jobs or Al Gore and wondered what makes it different from the majority of talks I have trouble paying attention to. Some of it is their passion bubbling up, part of it is sheer practice that ironically lets them relax and sound natural (I never seem as impromptu as when I’ve rehearsed a talk 25 times). What I didn’t understand until I saw these videos by Ira Glass is that they’re using classic story-telling techniques too, mental hacks that grab the audience’s attention.

There’s lots of good advice in there, I recommend checking them all out, but the most valuable for me was the anecdote/reflection structure. We’re always taught to lay out our thoughts with the "Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you said" model, where you present your argument’s conclusion, then back that up with facts, and then revisit the conclusion. This is a great way of presenting a mathematical proof, but a terrible way of engaging the interest of a human being. We’re all wired to love stories, and the basic structure of a story is a series of connected events that raise some questions, which are then answered by the conclusion.

The terms Ira uses are anecdote for describing a sequence of things happening, and then a bit of reflection afterwards that tells the audience why those events were worth describing, answering the questions that they implicitly pose. The example he uses goes something like this:

"The man woke up, and it was silent. He got out of bed and looked around, and there was still no noise. He walked downstairs, and the house was completely quiet."

One the face of it, it’s the most boring set of facts imaginable, but your mind expects you’re being told this for some reason, and anticipates the question being answered. Is it silent because the man has gone deaf? The world has ended? This keeps the audience listening for clues, and gives them a payoff when you explain the significance of the details you told them at the end, during the reflection. After hearing this explained, I realized that both Steve’s keynotes and Al’s presentation use this structure masterfully. They build up questions with an anecdote, and then tell you what the conclusion was.

We all end up having to persuade others to take action, and the first step is actually getting them to listen. Give this a try with your own speaking and writing, I’ve been surprised by how much it’s helped me.

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