You Vs. the Phone

The new year begins with a vital reminder for public speakers: start strong, because people won’t go long without reaching for their phones.

In fact, smartphones have become so distracting, people can’t — or won’t — even walk down the street without staring at their screens. So says the National Safety Council, which for the first time included distracted walking injuries in its annual report.

Think about it. If people are willing to risk life and limb to read an email or send a text, imagine how long they’ll give a presenter when sitting in the safety of a seat. How long would you give a speaker? Sixty seconds? Three minutes?

Back on the business side of the lectern, remember that audience attention is highest at the beginning of a presentation. Don’t waste time with pleasantries or your agenda. Instead, hit them with:

- A provocative question (that you will address in your talk)

- A compelling statistic (that backs up your key message)

- A problem (for which you will offer a solution)

- Or an intriguing story or example (that ties directly to your topic)

The middle and ending are also critical. What good is grabbing people only to lose them five minutes in? When preparing your talk, build upon a logical structure, like: state the problem, provide your solution, and explain the outcome. Make sure to reinforce your most important points (no more than three) with brief, relevant, and vivid anecdotes or examples, and a few pertinent, hopefully eye-opening facts.

A side note: Being outrageous works for some people in some presidential elections, but the tactic is not recommended for everyday speakers. Credibility is a commodity that’s easy to lose and almost impossible to recover.

Meantime, if at the end people are still looking at you instead of a mobile Facebook app, the closing is your chance to send them off feeling energized, persuaded, or possibly inspired. This is where you answer the question you posed at the beginning, or issue a call to action.

Work on your closing. Use memorable words and phrases. If you’ve already branded a striking phrase as a motif in your presentation, this is the time to repeat it. There’s a reason everyone still knows I have a dream 53 years after Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial.

Remember that your ending is the last thing people will hear. Don’t fade. Slow down a bit for emphasis. Find some people in your audience and look them in the eye. Who knows? Maybe they’ll walk out using their phones to broadcast something nice about your presentation.