Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Presenting with a pocket full of cobras

I was just reading an article on Harvard Business Review's blog, written by Kare Anderson - it is called "Make Your Message (Almost) as Vital as AIR." It is a great set of guidelines to help make your message more impactful.  She uses the acronym "AIR" to represent three aspects of effective messages - here is a brief recap:Cobra

  1. Actionable:  "To secure connection with your intended audience or market, aspire to offer the equivalent ease of Amazon Prime's one-click buying."
  2. Interestingness:  "Make your message so unexpected, novel, provocative or otherwise odd that they are compelled to pay attention even if they are supposed to be doing something else."
  3. Relevance:  "You can increase relevance by getting specific sooner. That may mean you capture fewer people overall — but you will capture more of the right people, the people you need to reach."

In addition to resonating with the advice in this article, I absolutely agree with Kare's conclusion: 

Crafting a memorable message will make you more quotable, will keep you at the top of people's minds, and will ultimately inject your life with more opportunity and adventure.

Is your message lost in the noise?

I commented on Kare's article on the HBR site, but wanted to elaborate a bit here about just how vital the "Interestingness" part of this formula can be.  

As you may know from my writing on this blog, I spend a lot of time doing presentations and leading discussions as part of my job in a software company.  In addition to trying to create Actionable, Interesting, and Relevant messages, one of the big challenges I have is delivering my message in a way that allows me to not only compete with the "ambient noise" of daily life but to get people to stop what they are doing and engage with me.

Often, especially when I'm presenting to large groups at conferences, I can see people with their heads buried in their email, Facebook, or some other online activity.  I try not to take it personally and, in fact, I try to frame it as a challenge:  How can I pull them away from other activities enough that they begin to engage in my topic?

Got a cobra in your pocket?

As I mentioned in my comments to Kare, I used to work with a guy that I described as having a "pocket full of cobras."  Why?  

Any time he started to get attacked in meetings, or feel uneasy with the topic at hand, he had a knack for coming up with some tangent that sucked everyone in and got everyone focused on something new.  Kind of like if he'd pulled a cobra out of his pocket and thrown it on the conference room table - if that happened, no matter what you were doing a moment before you'd instantly turn your attention to the cobra. 

My coworker used his cobras as a way to deflect and distract, but I believe you can create your own collection of cobras that you can use to compel and focus your audience.  After all, when presenting, or writing, or even trying to lead a discussion in a room full of coworkers, sometimes it can be good to "shock the system" with a dramatic, controversial, or unexpected injection of provocative content.

Be prepared.

Some of my favorite communicators are great at grabbing your attention, and have developed their own "pockets full of cobras" to help keep you focused on the right things.  Some of the things I've seen work well include:

  • Stories:  Telling an interesting or personal story to illustrate one of your main points can be very effective.  People tend to remember stories, so you'll increase the likelihood that they'll retain your key points if you wrap them in good stories.
  • Pictures:  I've seen a (welcome) trend away from bullet points toward evocative images.  These work most effectively when combined with good stories, as described in the previous bullet.
  • Polls:  Want to engage the audience?  Be ready with some questions that require them to answer, vote, or otherwise respond.  If you do this early in the presentation, you'll keep them on their toes - after all, if there is going to be another quiz, they're going to pay more attention.
  • Small group discussion with a report back:  This doesn't work for all topics, but it can be effective to get the audience engaged, take the 'burden of content' off your shoulders, and inject new ideas into the group.  Get each table to go off and work on a problem (could be the same problem for everyone, or a collection of relevant problems), the get each group to report back about their group's ideas or proposed solutions.
  • Videos:  Videos or film clips can often switch things up and get people to pay attention to what's going on in the room.  
    • For example, I once did a presentation that used an excerpt from the movie "The Blind Side" to frame a discussion about the need to make a radical change in companies' approaches to their information security strategy.  I then told a story to connect my concepts to what we saw in the video clip.  I got lots of feedback from the audience for months afterward, talking about how much they remembered that presentation and used it as a reminder to think differently about their security strategies.
  • Step into the crowd:  Move into the crowd, or take a step into the crowd.  That little bit of "hey, what's this guy up to" can shift people's attention.  And, they'll be less likely to do email or Facebook with you walking around behind them!
  • Contrast:  What do I mean by contrast?  Contrast could be silence.  It could be a loud noise.  It could be a goofy exercise.  Just find a way to break the flow of the discussion in a noticeable way, and you'll increase the chances that people will shift their attention to where you want it to be.
    • One cool trick I've learned is the "blank screen" technique.  In PowerPoint, you can just hit the "B" key on the keyboard and your screen turns black.  Do that, and people stop reading your slides and look at you.
    • Another cool trick if a lot of people are having side conversations is to just stand there and look at them without saying a word (or, if you don't want to stare at them just look out into the room).  After about 5-10 seconds, they'll probably stop what they are doing and look at you.  Boom.  You have them back.

These are just a few of the productive cobras I've developed.  Do you have any other ideas or techniques that sound anything like this?  How about sharing them?  I'd love to put some more cobras in my pocket.