Iconic music begins with an opening that you can’t forget. The lyrics are emotional, engaging, and personal. It pulls the listener in, inviting them to go on a journey hand in hand with the artist. Similarly, from a young age, we learn that the opening sentence of a story or play is the “hook” that reels the audience in and invites them to the table.
Like a song, the first line of a presentation paints a picture; it sets the atmosphere and allows you the confidence to continue. The first minute creates momentum for the rest of your story. Consider your last discussion, did the opening permit you to move forward, or did you lose the audience immediately?
Researchers believe that first impressions are created in under three seconds. In the blink of an eye, people assess your competence, aggressiveness, intelligence, and trustworthiness. As you finish your first line, you’ve already been sized up and judged by audience members. Observers automatically and unconsciously conduct a mental shortcut, assessing whether they like or dislike, trust, or mistrust.
Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, Nobel laureate, and author of Thinking, Fast And Slow, has found that most people can accurately predict whether they will like a person, but they are also often wrong. The brain doesn’t like ambiguity; it would rather make quick, clean decisions devoid of nuance.
Kahneman’s research shows that our expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. One’s beliefs and assumptions of another person will directly influence the traits they choose to observe. This is called confirmation bias, the tendency to search for and favor information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.
A few years ago, Microsoft uncovered that the average attention span has fallen thirty-three percent, from twelve to eight seconds. We now live in a world where “capturing one’s attention” is an invaluable art form. Most people are still stuck in “PowerPoint thinking,” a regimented and overblown approach to communication. But the best communicators are true, concise, and flexible. Are you able to get to the point and hold another’s attention? The research proves you may not be as good as you think. On average, people spend sixty percent of conversations talking about themselves. Those people are lost at sea and don’t even know it.
I have discovered three big communication traps.
The three traps
Embellishment. Brilliant writers share one thing: extreme editing. They unapologetically and mercilessly cut any unnecessary elements. Communication must remain minimal, clear, and thoughtful. While most of us aren’t routinely exposed to merciless editors, if you ever get to see their process you’ll realize there is always an opportunity to cut.
Unreadiness. You want to be irrelevant? Don’t prepare properly. “Under promising and over-performing,” is the most proven, yet least practiced, adage today. Nothing is worse than someone who shows up for a discussion and doesn’t understand your needs, agenda, or communication preference. The best communicators think like surgeons, diagnosing the situation and context before prescribing a solution.
Isolation. Stretching is inherently uncomfortable. To be present and receptive in a room full of people is an incredibly difficult feat. The best communicators are in the moment with you, adapting their communication style to be congruent with yours, whether you’re alone or with a team. It’s not about “them,” it’s about “you.” In a word, they are highly “present.”
Mark Twain shared, “it usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare an impromptu speech.” The best presentations (or discussions) have no fluff. They have been edited down to the essence of the message. Keep the tangents at the dinner table with old friends. Anyone can give a 30-slide presentation; very few can share an idea with precision, in one slide. The more concise the presentation, the more time necessary to create it.
Is your communication simple, clear, direct, conversational, and relatable?
Can you grab someone’s attention and still make your point in less than sixty seconds?
In a Customer Centric Selling blog, John Holland shares, “Filler words are verbal crutches and can be distracting. Don’t talk just to fill up space! Pause, listen, don’t make noise.”
One must create a compelling sales story that is simple, experiential, and unique while capturing another’s attention. Don’t let needless details detract from your message, hindering the soul of your message.
Research reminds us that we only have a few seconds to pique a recipient’s interest and make a bid for an attention extension! Why is it that we often fumble away the moment or transition into a tired old pitch?
The first 60 seconds
That is why the first 60 seconds of a meeting are so critical. You are being critiqued whether you like it or not. Here are three ideas to start a meeting:
- Start a discussion with a direct question that uncovers or validates “unrecognized” challenges.
- Convey a “what if” question, offering a vision of what could be co-created & the gap it fills.
- Demonstrate that you keenly understand their deepest challenges & prove you can solve them.
People often talk too much, sound scripted, use too much jargon, and discuss irrelevant information. Their words are far from compelling and do not invite deeper engagement.
The very best communicators have become one with their message, allowing them to stay in the moment. They are skilled at answering the question, “why should you care about what I am sharing?”
Editor’s note: This column is an excerpt from Dan Mack’s second book, Look Closer: Ideas on Reexamining and Eliminating Personal, Relational, and Organizational Blind Spots is an EQ blueprint to help leaders rethink how they personally and professionally engage the world. You can find the book here.