Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Attention-Getters Really Are Attention-Stokers, Guest-Starring WALK THE MOON

By Steven S. Vrooman

Every week in my classes, I watch students give speeches. You listen to weekly (daily?!?) presentations of various kinds where you work, as well. So many of them start poorly, don't they?

The Squandered Attention Moment


When you are a stranger to the audience and take the stage, their interest in you is peaked. There will never be a moment where they will be paying more attention to you than right then. And if you are in front of them every week or every day, and thus, at least theoretically, not a stranger, well, you've got a few seconds before they settle back into their typical pseudolistening routine.

But so many people squander that powerful moment with the "Hi, my name is <blank> and I'm here to talk about <blank>." This is so common, we could acronym it if it made a cool acronym. It doesn't: HMNIBAIHTTAB.

I think we wilt under the power of the attention and almost purposefully dissipate it is as quickly as possible. Have you ever done that? If you instead begin with a great story, you will feel their eyes on you. And sometimes that is rough. You will likely be the most nervous right at the beginning. So we've got to chart a way through that.

Traditional speaking books talk about the "attention-getter," as if you need to corral the room into looking at you. 

This is a thing that you need to do if, say, you are teaching high school in Grease 2.

But there is often a bit of attention given at that first moment for most audiences. Our goal should be to raise the audience's energy or focus or connection to you so much that when the inevitable slackening of the "attentiveness curve" happens, you've kept them up as high as possible. You want to reduce the slope on this diagram to the above so that it no longer looks like someone might ski down it, chasing John Cusack while screaming "TWO DOLLARS!" 

Would renaming attention-getters "attention-stokers" be bad? I also grew up in the 80s, so I am partial to the concept of being "stoked" for something. Fer sure, dude. Fer sure.

Bad Attempts at Attention (Thanks, Blogosphere!)

You can easily find lists of these. Plenty of people with little content but a blog to fill make posts of this kind: "7 Surprising Ways to Start a Speech for Killer Results!" Aaaannnndd they will crack open their public speaking book from sophomore year at Football State U and toss out the typical list:

  • Story!
  • Startling Statistic!
  • Humor!
  • Figurative Language!
  • Visual Aid
But you can tell they are not really thinking about it when they toss these logs on the fire as well (Quick check: Have they posted about the best ways to write a blog title to get attention? Yep. They have no ideas):
  • Complimenting the Audience?
  • Rhetorical Question?
  • Promise a Benefit?
  • Ask an Audience Response Question?
These are all terrible, originally written by textbook authors in the 70s and 80s who were, um, NOT AT ALL swiping each other's ideas while producing the SAME LISTS of attention-getters in all the books. We can talk if you aren't sure why these are bad ideas. But as an example, I had a student once begin a speech with "Raise your hand if you've ever ridden in a car before."

The first list, those are good. The second list. . . .well, as we say in Texas, bless your heart.

How to Stoke Attention

Let me close with an example of why this is important. We fail to stoke attention out of 1) nerves or 2) laziness, but a reasonably common third reason is that we think we don't need one. We are too good for them, basically. We and/or our topic is so compelling, well, they'll just HAVE to pay attention.

WALK THE MOON (yeah, their name is in all caps) is a band. People pay to come and see their shows. They play clear drums that look like layered Jello shots. They wear tight pants. People scream. They dance. People are so excited they paint their faces for this band:

Yet they start their shows with attention-stokers. If this band thinks that is a good idea, you, who are, let's be honest, WAAAAYYYYYYY less exciting, even at your best, need to use one, too.

Here's them starting with "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King before they start. Clear, but effective, millenial-baiting. It starts at 16 seconds. Listen to the crowd love it:

The first time I heard them do that live, I was floored. Last time I saw them they gave us the theme song for Game of Thrones:

See how these are not attention-getters, but attention-stokers? No more "SEX! Now that I have your attention, let's talk about accounting" openings like you saw people do when they were running for senior class president in high school. You are not gaining attention, you are stoking it, keeping it, making a connection with the audience. 

In WALK THE MOON's case, they are communicating important things that will come to fruition later when they admit that they are all nerds, like us. Their concert is a safe nerd space. They are saying that they watch the same movies and shows as us. They are regular dudes. They are basically playing the "Remember the Theme Song" game that nerds might do at the bus stop. It is a subtle thing, but it matters. 

They do a song halfway through the show called "I Can Lift a Car." I've seen lead signer Nicholas Petricca do a bit before the song where he asks the audience to put all their stress and sadness into a ball in their chest. As the music starts to swell for the song, he asks everyone to lift that weight up over their heads. It's a bit goofy. But it's a bit inspirational if you get into the vibe. It is a fine line, perhaps. But people dig it. They make little paper and cardboard cars that they hold up during the song. The Lion King theme song doesn't make that happen, but it helps. It might even help a lot.

The opening of your speech is the most important moment. Don't squander it.

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