We were in San Francisco last December to work with NASA and National Geographic’s Famelab competition. Shayle, one of the young scientists who presented, said, “Nudibranchs steal poison from their prey. They carry it around like a poisonous backpack, using it for their own defense.” I remember the point of the talk because the main idea was right up front, well-explained in the body and re-emphasized at the end. Shayle Matsuda won that particular competition and will compete in the national level Famelab event later this year.
Have you ever found yourself wishing that someone who wanders through a speech or a conversation would just get to the point? When you speak, your audience is trying to make meaning from what you say. If you don’t get to the point pretty quickly and your listeners don’t know you well enough to be patient with your meanderings, they are inclined to embark on their own wanderings as they tune you out.
The point is that any listener needs to make meaning from what you are saying right from the start. Most listeners ask silently “what has this got to do with me?” before deciding whether they want to invest their interest. John Medina, a neurologist and molecular biologist, writes in Brain Rules that Rule #4 is “We don’t pay attention to boring things.” He suggests that “the more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded–and retained.”
Research on advance organizers suggests that sharing your point or main idea at the beginning of a presentation lets the listener know what you will be talking about. This main idea, or theme, of your talk helps the listener determine whether he or she wants to pay attention. If you lose focus and begin to wander away from your theme, the audience can become confused and disinterested. You might think of digressions as “interference,” noise that actually disrupts or obscures the main point of your talk.
Recapturing the audience is tough to do once you lose them. They may have their eyes open and be facing you, while they are thinking about where they are going to eat or how they are going to redecorate their home. Merely being present does not constitute paying attention or real engagement.
During the presentation, it also helps the audience to focus on what you’re saying if you use language that is understandable or relevant to his or her life. A sea slug eating and storing poisons in a “backpack” suggests an interesting image that is easy for most people to understand. Cerata storage of toxic nematocysts in eolid nudibranchs is way too unfamiliar for most of us. Using jargon and complicated explanations may only work if your audience is that specialized group of specialists who work in the same field.
Restating your point in your conclusion helps the audience pull together all the bits and pieces you’ve shared through anecdotes, facts, and examples related to your main idea. The restatement of your theme doesn’t have to be in the exact same words you used at the beginning. It should simply reinforce the point to give the listener something to think about later.
Speech teachers have often said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them.” Communication and psychological research support that idea, so get to the point quickly and stay with it until you recap at the end. They may not remember all the details, but months or years later your main idea will likely still be at work in the minds of those who listened to you.
– Tim Merriman