Imagine the scene at PWC in the aftermath of the Oscars ‘envelopegate’. A meeting without coffee, undoubtedly, for Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan. Will Brian be fired? Will he resign? The outcome will partly depend on his communication skills. As Malcolm Gladwell deduces in the excellent Outliers, one of the key determinants of success in life is an ability to “get what you want from the world” by “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect”. Let’s hope Brian is firing on all communication cylinders.
Gladwell’s not the first to make this observation. According to Theodore Roosevelt “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people”.
When Sheryl Sandberg got help to sharpen up her communication skills, it “changed my career and my life”.
But I hadn’t realised quite how significant these skills were until I came across Yuval Noah Harari’s fascinating book Sapiens in which he seeks to explain why Homo sapiens ended up dominating the world. He points to a genetic mutation 70,000 years ago which enabled them to communicate in a new way. This made it possible for them to cooperate in large numbers and see off rivals such as Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo soloensis.
We’ve come a long way in 70,000 years, but what of the future of verbal communication for Homo sapiens? According to the PRCA’s (Public Relations and Communications Association) most recent digital report, people’s attention spans are decreasing; they are easily distracted; they want immersive content; they’re no longer happy to be talked at; they want a conversation/story; they need to have their interest and curiosity sparked.
So how do those of us who present, teach, pitch to these audiences respond? Here are a few tips:
- As part of your preparation, be sure to thoroughly ‘map’ the audience. Gather everything you can about them – what they know, what they’re feeling, what’s in it for them. And remember, there’s no such thing as an ‘audience’ – they are a group of individuals. If you start with this, you can include content which will be relevant to each of them.
- Edit, edit, and then edit again. Be ruthless. Keep cross referencing possible content with what you know about the audience. This will help you to engage and retain their attention.
- Be sure to include at least one bit of content which will surprise, delight, shock them. I call these ‘Raised Eyebrow Moments’.
- Don’t just give them facts, reach them on an emotional level. As Maya Angelou put it:
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”.