As a presenter, you want an audience riveted to your every word. Yet in this era of smartphone-induced limited attention spans, that challenge is becoming increasingly difficult. You need every trick in your arsenal to keep people focused.
A recent tour of the Sydney Opera House highlighted one particularly powerful technique.
In some ways, the tour was disappointing. Many of the auditoria were being set up for evening performances, so opportunities to see backstage or ‘behind the scenes’ were limited. The tour didn’t really take you anywhere that you felt you couldn’t have seen by wandering around yourself.
Yet it turned out to be an intriguing 60 minutes. And much of that was down to Nick, our guide: a storyteller with a flair for suspense.
At several points in the tour, short films described the history of the venue, and the fascinating struggle to realise an innovative design that some thought was ‘unbuildable’. After each video, Nick would create a sense of suspense to keep you involved for the next part of the tour.
For example, the first film described how construction was scheduled to take three years, and cost A$7 million. “Did we keep to budget and time?” Nick asked before starting the tour again. “We’ll find out a bit later…” (They didn’t: it took 14 years, and cost A$102 million).
Further on, another film described the sacking of architect Jorn Utzon, who left the country never to return to see his vision completed. “But it wasn’t quite the sad ending that implies,” Nick assured us afterwards, “as we’ll find out shortly…” (Utzon and his son were re-engaged in future years to design improvements to the original building).
It proved a simple but highly effective tactic.
Nick left his audience wondering what that final cost could possibly have been: we imagined it was higher, but not 1400% higher. And how would the sad story of the visionary architect of one of the world’s most treasured icons resolve into a happy one?
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath attribute the power of suspense to the ‘gap theory of curiosity’ proposed by behavioural economist George Loewenstein.
Curiosity, Lowenstein argues, happens when we feel we have a gap in our knowledge. Gaps cause pain. And like an itch we can’t scratch, we need to fill the gap in our knowledge to ease that pain.
It’s why many of us sit through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch. Not knowing the end, we feel, is even more painful.
Our tendency in communication is to tell people the facts. But as the Heath brothers point out, to take advantage of the gap theory your audience first need to know they need those facts. You have to open gaps before you can close them.
So in your next presentation, take a leaf from Nick’s approach. Pose questions. Create suspense. Open gaps in your audience’s knowledge. Let them suffer the pain of not knowing the answers before you fill them in.
And watch as they hang attentively on your words.