Waving at Concorde

When you stand up in front of a room of twenty people – to give a lunchtime talk, or a seminar – to give opening remarks, an informal speech, the fire safety instructions or a quick session on Buddhist philosophy – you might feel like you’re being watched closely by 20 pairs of eyes.  But actually you’ve been put on a temporary watchlist by 20 brains, which is a very different thing.

(Someone is rummaging in their handbag for a Werther’s, so probably down to 19 brains already.)

Imagine the inside of the cockpit of a modern jet (the photo is actually Concorde). This is the view from the inside of your audience’s head.  You see that narrow windscreen at the front: you’re on the other side of that, like the ground crew, waving and gesticulating from a distance with those day-glo lollipop things, trying to catch the cockpit’s attention.  The pilots (audience) may sometimes be facing you with their eyes open.  But there are hundreds of hard-wired distractions ready to grab their focus, pushing your fluorescent gesticulations (introductory remarks) way down their neural agenda.

(Someone gets a text from Phil.  Down to 18 brains.)

So where is all this raw data coming from? Who controls the lights, the dials, the radio frequencies?  Because this data is your competition.  If you want people to remember something – that they need to assemble in the park across the road in case of a fire drill, or that the name of the Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama – you are going to have to fight for their attention, and to elbow that enemy data aside.  You will need to wave hard enough to beat the flashing lights.

(Vibrations from a phone, down to 17.  Is that mine?  Must switch it off.  Back up to 18, Werther’s situation resolved.)

Firstly, you are competing with their sensory inputs.  These signals are coming into brains through the optic nerve, through the cochlea of the inner ear, through nerve endings and touch receptors under the skin, through olfactory receptors in the nose, and even through the taste buds.

For the 600 million years of evolution since vertebrates emerged, we have survived by staying sharp.  We’re been trained, via untimely death, to pay attention to these sensory inputs.  The cochlea and the olfactory receptors have gone to college for 600 million years to learn how to grab your attention.  As CJ might have said in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, we didn’t get where we are today but not scanning our environment on a second-by-second basis and triggering fight-or-flight bursts of adrenaline and norepinephrine from the adrenal glands as soon as we spot something unfamiliar in the bushes.

As today’s advertised speaker, you do not really count as something unfamiliar in the bushes.

You’re going to have to find something else to catch their interest.  There are hundreds of external sensory inputs per brain – the things that stimulate “exogenous orienting“, in the jargon – and you, you on the stage, you’re just one of them.  Your novelty and potential fear factor will have worked a little bit, at the start, but will be wearing off very soon.

(Third row back, annoying itch just above the left ankle, back down to 17 brains.)

That’s the external inputs.  But secondly, you’re also competing with the internal inputs.  These are a killer as well.  People actually do want to focus on you, at the beginning – well, most of them do – so they’re genuinely trying to ignore the external stuff – or, well, most of them are.

But it’s very hard to close down the distractions of your own mind, the internal dialogue, the “endogenous orienting”.  As John Medina puts it in Brain Rules, even in normal conditions the brain is “churning like a kicked beehive”.

(Down to 16, Tessa remembers urgent need for Facebook status update.)

Thirdly – on top of the things happening in the room, and their inner thoughts, neither of which you can control – you can undermine yourself by saying something interesting.

Because if you succeed in saying something interesting, and they start thinking about it, the internal brain chatter about your last point may prevent them from focusing on your next point.  You’ve lost their attention for the next couple of minutes and you’ve done it to yourself.  Own goal.

(Down to 15, oops 14, minor disturbance re coffee spillage.  Paper napkins and tissues are found.  Apologies given and accepted.)

Thinking you have an audience’s exclusive attention, is like thinking you’re the only man on Tinder.

So we need to work hard to counter our own illusions.  We need to compete hard, even if it feels like we’re the only game in town, because we’re not. Including when we:

  • Give introductions, speeches, talks and presentations
  • Design e-learning
  • Create any sort of learning material whatsoever, in any medium.

In case you’re not an L&D type, and you’re starting to feel sorry for people who give talks or design learning materials for a living, don’t waste your time, because you need to start feeling sorry for yourself.  You haven’t avoided the hard grind of trying to catch and keep people’s attention, at least not if you:

  • Send emails
  • Ever write anything that you actually want to be read by somebody else
  • Use social media
  • Apply for jobs
  • Talk to people. Any people, ever.

It’s worth remembering this when you’re talking to a friend.  You’re waving at the pilot of Concorde.  There’s a hell of a lot going on in that brain/cockpit.  People you think are listening to you are probably spending 38% of their time thinking about what to say next, 23% of their time looking for the gap in the conversation in which to say it, and 17% of their time being irritated by the loud bloke at the next table.

To conclude: we’re competing with other external inputs, with internal inputs, and possibly even with ourselves.  We need to work damn hard to catch people’s attention.

(Back up to 16 or 17.  Temporarily.)

Image credit: Christian Kath



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