The Public Speaker and the New Communication Era

Imagine this scenario: it’s the Monday morning all-hands meeting at the office, for which you have prepared hard, because you plan on pitching some new ideas about a number of things to your company executives. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time crafting your argument and designing your PowerPoint deck infused with numerous data and statistics. And you’re so sure they’re going to love your pitch and jump at your ideas. But halfway through your presentation, you suddenly realize that almost everyone in the room is looking down at their phones or tablets. You have somehow lost the audience you thought would be riveted by your exciting new ideas. You couldn’t hold their attention through to the end of your presentation because whatever you were saying wasn’t as interesting to them as the attractions on their handhelds. Well, that, right there, is our new reality today.

The way we communicate has changed a lot in the last couple of years. And the reason for that, in large part, is that today’s listeners have far more things contending for their attention than ever before, courtesy of our addiction to our gadgets and social media consumption. Now it’s not uncommon to stand in front of an audience to give a presentation and you find very many of them looking down at their smartphones, instead of looking up at you. Having a smartphone handy means a person can constantly alternate between listening to you and checking their phones for notifications. It means they can be doing any number of things from creating a to-do list to checking other people’s WhatsApp status to following breaking news, other than listening to you.

Countless studies have shown beyond doubt that attention spans have dwindled significantly. A recent one found that that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000- around the time smartphones hit the scene- to eight seconds today. Meaning that it is increasingly difficult for people to focus on any one thing for very long.

This is the challenge with which today’s public speakers are faced. You are speaking to people who can tune you out any minute by turning their attention to their mobile devices if they don’t find you interesting enough. And it is utterly pointless to ask them to put away their gadgets for your sake, because they won’t. So what is the solution? The responsibility falls to you to win the attention of your listeners away from the attractions on their devices. What I’m saying is, you have to be more interesting and engaging – both in terms of what you say and how you say it – than the sources of distractions on their gadgets. You have to give them a reason to listen to you. That has always been the communicator’s task, but that task is more daunting today than ever, and you must rise to it. Otherwise, your message will be lost in today’s world of limited attention and information overload.

This means you can no longer afford to be careless about the communication experience you are creating for your audience. You can’t bore people with endless charts, graphs and numbers, and a weird array of bullet points, and still expect to have their undivided attention throughout your presentation. So instead of focusing on the problem which isn’t going away, focus on being the best communicator that you can be in any given situation. Find creative ways to engage your audience members. Tell a story, if you can. Inject a healthy dose of humour into your presentation. Employ vocal variety as against boring your listeners with a sleep inducing monotone. The point is, before you take the stage, have a strategy in place for how you want to grab your listeners’ attention right off the bat and hold it through to the end.

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