If you want to be an effective communicator you need to get your audience to pay attention—if you don’t succeed at that there are, at least, four different communication disasters waiting for you. Fortunately, being interesting isn’t hard to do.
In an earlier post I talked about how an effective document is one that gets read; an effective presentation is one that people pay attention to. There are four disasters waiting for you when your presentation or document fails to be interesting.
The picture shows the disaster we think of first: the audience for our presentation goes to sleep. But there’s a second way that an “un-interesting” presentation can fail: The presenter answers a question from the audience…and then never gets back to the original presentation as one question follows another. In this disaster, the presentation has been hijacked by the audience because they’ve decided the original presentation wasn’t interesting.
The picture is less typical of the way uninteresting documents fail (the third disaster): readers stuck with a document that isn’t interesting just throw the thing away. But there’s also a fourth disaster waiting for uninteresting documents: Readers complain that the document has “too much information.” What readers really mean when they say that is that any interesting material in the document was drowned by material that wasn’t interesting.
The blogosphere has lots of suggestions about “how to be interesting” (believe in what you write, start with a short phrase, have a great graphic) but those are all the wrong answer. The right answer is simpler than any of those suggestions: If you want to be interesting to your audience, talk about what your audience cares about.
That means that the first step in being interesting is to think about why a member of your potential audience would want to read your document or attend your presentation. You must put yourself in your audience’s shoes and think why they, with their issues/concerns/values, would feel that your document or presentation matters to them. In Learning Tree’s Technical Writing course we refer to this as the audience’s purpose in reading your document (or attending your presentation). Addressing the audience’s purpose starts to make your document or presentation interesting.
Your next step is to determine what topics matter to your audience—this is how you stay interesting. The easiest way to figure out what your topics should be is to ask a few people who are typical of your audience (it’s not cheating to ask). Questions like “What are you worried about?”, “What’s gone wrong for you in the past?,” or even “What do you want to know about?” are enough to give you the topics you need to slot your content into. If you can’t ask audience members, reviewing the topics covered in sources of information popular with your audience will give you a good idea of what topics matter to them.
The third step is to shut up—this is how you keep from becoming un-interesting. There may be lots of things that are important to you that aren’t tied to the audience’s purpose or won’t fit into their topics: Leave them out. Sometimes you have a topic that you feel that is critical, that “needs to be addressed”…but that you know your audience doesn’t care about. You can address your critical topic…but first you must show your audience the connection between your topic and what matters to them. Only after you successfully make that connection in your audience’s minds can you discuss your critical topic.
There’s more to say about translating what you know about your audience into a document or presentation, of course. I’ll return to those details in a later post but, in the meantime, here’s one tip for avoiding these disasters: Put what matters to your audience in your document or presentation’s title.
In one of my Business and Report Writing classes, I had a participant from Canada’s Armed Forces who was about to write a document he called “Use of Electronic Devices in Volatile Environments.” That didn’t sound like an interesting document to me. However, it turned out that “volatile environments” meant “places with lots of explosives” (specifically: fuel and ammunition supply depots). I suggested that the real title of his document should be “How NOT to Blow Yourself Up with your Cellphone.” Now that’s an interesting document.
This is the second of a series of six posts about how to catch and hold your audience’s attention. The first post talks about the importance of getting the readers’ attention.
The next two posts show how to apply what you discover following the process in this post in a presentation that people will pay attention to. The first post shows how to start the presentation and the second discusses how to structure the body of the presentation to keep your audience’s attention.
The last two posts do the same thing for creating a document that will get read, beginning with how to get people to pay attention to your document and then going on to discuss how to structure the document’s body so people will continue to read it.