How to make your audience care

Robert Cialdini had a problem. “Teaching at a University is a great job”, he writes “but there are inherent difficulties”. Some difficulties are common to both the lecture theatre and the boardroom: How do you get people to devote their full attention to the lecture or presentation material so that they understand the concepts involved? How do you get them to concentrate for 45 minutes? Other difficulties are restricted to the college lecture theatre: how do I prevent students from perving, passing notes to one another and packing up early in anticipation of another lecture? (Come to think of it, those things happen in some boardrooms as well)

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In search of a solution to these difficulties, the famous academic went down to his local library where he took out a range of books - some written by academics, others by popular science writers and some by authors of popular fiction. After weeks of study, Cialdini noticed a pattern: the so-called “expert” texts dripped with syrupy prose and puzzling jargon while the writing in the “popular” texts was logical, contained vivid examples as well as occasional injections of humour. Moreover, the most compelling explanations came from authors who tackled complex scientific topics as a crime writer might tackle a mystery story. “The authors described a state of affairs that seemed perplexing and then invited the reader into the subsequent material as a way of dispatching the enigma”.

“The Human brain craves closure” wrote Cialdini in his book Pre-Suasion. The engaging “murder mystery” style in the popular science texts “grabbed the reader by the collar and pulled her into the material in such a way that she couldn’t remain an aloof outside observer.”

Cialdini had just stumbled over something that behavioural economist George Loewenstein would later describe as the “Information Gap”. In short, we become curious when we discern a gap between what we know and what we want to know. This gap kick starts the emotions: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge as a means of scratching the itch.

Contrast this with the average boardroom presentation. It’s generally assumed that if you know the facts and table them in a more or less logical order your listeners will not only absorb them but care about them too. Not so. As Stanford academic Chip Heath says: “This spoon-feeding might be safe but it’s also boring and thoroughly non sticky”. Which is why it so seldom really works. Just because someone’s job description obliges them to be in your presentation, don’t assume they’re actually going to care about what you have to say. They must be made to care. They must be convinced they need your message, that they need the facts.

So what did Prof. Cialdini actually DO with his newfound wisdom? His next lecture set out to expound upon the miry topic of the Tobacco Advertising Ban of 1969. By using a mystery novel overlay, he not only managed to hold his audience’s attention for an extra 10 minutes, he delivered a mesmerising experience that is remembered decades later. For Cialdini’s students, it was the difference between information being defined for them and information being discovered by them. In short, by exploiting the Information Gap, Cialdini made his students care. Click here to see an outline of the lecture itself - it’s fascinating.

This year three communicators have used the Information Gap to make me care about some of the most unlikely topics

Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and 3 other best sellers. From his features in the New Yorker to his books and his Podcast, Gladwell uses the Information Gap to romance you into the world of his subject. A lover of jigsaws as a child, Gladwell admits that even a family holiday in the beautiful French countryside was no match for the allure of working through a puzzle. He seeks to do the same with his writing. “As a writer I have my little shelf of objects and I want to arrange them in a manner so that it is compelling to my readers”. Check out Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” Podcast to see what I mean - the episode dealing with the Toyota Camry brake crisis is a work of art.

Stephen Dubner

Another Information Gap Ninja is the co-author of “Freakonomics” and “Superfreakonomics”. There’s a reason his Podcast (aptly described as “The Hidden Side of Everything”) appears frequently in the iTunes Top 10. Whether he’s talking about the hidden side of restaurant tipping, of professional sports, of American Politics, of creativity or somewhat bizarrely, the hidden side of the apology...Dubner’s measured and meticulous unveiling of the facts has me enraptured week in and week out.

Prerana Issar, Director of the UN's World Food Program

In a speech entitled “Solving world hunger while making money”, Prerana shunned the all too common “spoon feed” in favour of an intriguing and well woven tale. The key protagonist was a smallholder farmer called “Juliana” who lives in the village of Ukumoro in Tanzania. As we get to know Juliana, we learn about her precarious existence, the fine line she walks between warding off acute hunger and making money as a small scale farmer. Not only was it fascinating, it made me care both about Juliana and the activities of the World Food Program as well.

Their attention to what you have to say is far from guaranteed. What do you have to do to turn this around?

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