Storytelling with Intent: Making promises to gain and retain audience attention

Every professional communicator wants something from their audience, but how do you ensure the transaction isn’t just one way?

I want to take a couple of minutes share a technique that might help you better engage with audiences and get you to an outcome you and they are happy with.

Firstly, I need you to think about every act of communication as a transaction. Whether you are communicating for personal or professional reasons, you are always seeking something from the people you are communicating with, even if your goal is simply to retain their attention.

Of course, when communicating for professional purposes you are usually wanting something more – most commonly, the opportunity to change the way people think, feel, or behave.

So if you want to achieve this outcome with your audience, then isn’t it fair that they should get something in return?

Looking at communication in this way can feel reductive, but people’s time is valuable, and their attention should be rewarded.

Unfortunately, presenters are often guilty of taking someone’s time while giving them nothing of value in return. This a common outcome in advertising, where brand owners know that large segments of the audience will have no interest in what they have to offer, but are nonetheless willing to run the risk of annoying these people, thanks to their belief that the segments who are interested will make their investment worthwhile.

It’s a mistake that’s also committed in conference presentations – especially in those sessions where a sponsor has bought time on stage and is determined to use it to drive their message home, regardless of whether anyone in the audience wants to hear it. In these scenarios audiences often have very low expectations of what they are about to hear – especially when the presenter/author is not a known entity.

The same mistake is also committed frequently in whitepapers, media interviews, and other forms of communication – the result being that no one is reading what’s been written or listening to what’s being said – let alone having their thinking, feeling, or behaviour changed.

So how then can you not only engage people’s attention, but retain it through to the point where they have heard, seen, or read everything you want them to hear?

One way is to make them a promise – a promise that they’ll care about deeply enough to hold you to.

Next time you’re developing a whitepaper or presentation, think about not just want you want from the audience, but what the audience might want from you, and then make that promise explicit from the very beginning. In short, make them a promise upfront that they’ll want you to keep.

Doing this effectively requires a few things to have happened first. For starters, you’ll need a clear understanding of your audience and what it wants – and hopefully, that is something you can deliver.

Making a promise they’ll want you to keep does several things to help you get your message across. First, it ensures you have their attention from the outset. Second, it sets an expectation that makes it clear you are personally accountable for what follows. And third, should you deliver on your promise, you’ve given the audience another reason to remember what you’ve said, long after you’ve said it.

Should you fall short, the worst outcome is usually that they’ll briefly mark you down for failing to meet expectations and then promptly forget about you – an outcome no worse than if they had not paid attention in the first place. Alternately, while you might not deliver exactly what you promised, because you have their attention you can deliver other points of value, and potentially offset their disappointment.

This technique is not rocket science, and it is a common attribute of sales-related presentations. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be used in other engagements, even when you are not wanting to drive audience members to a conversion outcome. Even so-called thought leadership presentations are still driving towards an outcome, and that outcome can’t be achieved if you haven’t gained and retained your audience’s attention.

Making a promise sets an expectation, and gives audience members an additional reason to listen to what you have to say. It does mean taking a risk, but given you are asking the audience to take a risk by listening to you in the first place, it is a risk you should be prepared to take.

I mentioned at the start of this post that I wanted to share a technique I’d found useful for maintaining an audience’s attention during presentations. That was my promise, and hopefully I’ve delivered on that.

The fact that you are still reading to this point tells me that (hopefully) you have.

The link between saving the planet and and successful business transformation – recent articles

One of the topics I spent a lot of time looking into in 2019 was the common attributes of organisations who execute successful change programs. One factor that came through as being critical to the success of these programs was having buy-in from staff.

In parallel, the past few years have seen a growth in interest in measuring employee engagement within organisations. This has been great news for companies such as Qualtrics and local hero Culture Amp, who provide tools to measure and influence staff engagement and organisational culture. It’s also been interesting to witness the increased interest in purpose within many organisations. I’ve spent quite a few hours listening to executives talk about the importance of giving staff a sense that what they are doing is for more than just shareholder returns.

In this article for CMO, and again in this special report for The Australiian, I had the chance to talk to a number of business leaders about the importance of sustainability to their brand. But the discussions also uncovered another lesson that might be useful for many organisations – that of how having a strong purpose around sustainability can make a workforce more resillient to change. The idea is that people are more willing to accept and even embrace radical change when they can see that the outcome will be of significant benefit to their organisation in terms of its ability to meet its purpose.

Instilling a sense that ‘this is for the greater good’ is a critical element in succesful transformation programs. And that desire to push forward with chance can clearly be enhanced when the greater good is much greater than just being for the good of the organisation itself.

The future of work, and why its better to be wanted than needed

When it comes to the future of work, the key question that everyone wants the answer to is whether their work has a future.

Automation promises/threatens to make many roles that exist today unnecessary, leading to somewhat scary outcomes for a number of careers.

But perhaps there is a different way to think about the future of work – one that is based more on human preferences and behaviours rather than technical possibilities. And it might just help us find where the new opportunities will be, or at least evolve what we are currently doing into something that is a little more future-proof.

Let me start by first placing some definitions around two important words – ‘want’ and ‘need’.

Let’s say for example that I ‘want’ to go to London. In order to get to London, there are certain things I ‘need’. For starters, I ‘need’ a method of transportation. I also ‘need’ a ticket, a passport, and potentially a bunch of other things – just so I can get what I ‘want’.

Now consider what I would have ‘needed’ to get to London a couple of decades ago. Firstly, I needed a paper ticket. To get one of those, I needed a travel agent.

Thanks to the internet, all I ‘need’ now is few minutes online. The time and effort to get from what I desire to what I want has been compressed by the removal of that step. I still need a passport (for now) and a mode of transportation (at least until someone invents the Star Trek transporter). But any airline that still only accepted paper tickets issued through travel agents would not be long for this earth.

This pattern is repeating itself over and over again. Decades ago, if I ‘wanted’ a book, I ‘needed’ to go to a bookstore. I didn’t want a bookstore though, I wanted a book – cue the demise of many booksellers. If I ‘wanted’ to watch a movie at home, I ‘needed’ to rent or buy it from a store. I no longer need to do that. Cue the demise of the video rental industry. And so on.

That same logic is putting pressure on many other professions. If I ‘wanted’ investment advice I might have ‘needed’ to speak to an investment advisor. Now AI-based robo-advisors can play that role.

What this means for each of us is that even if we are currently essential to helping a person get what they want, there is probably someone, somewhere, working on a solution which will help that person get what they want without us.

And if they can do so at cheaply enough, you’re looking at a limited professional lifespan. Bye bye to the ticket issuing function of travel agents. Bye bye to investment advisors, accountants, lawyers, etc. etc. If we are not providing the actual ‘thing’ that the person wants – – advice, business compliance, legal advice – but simply providing them with something they need to help them get it – we could be in trouble.

That doesn’t of course mean that all bookstores have died. There are instance where I might ‘want’ to go wandering through a bookstore, perhaps simply for the pleasure of it, or for the serendipitous discovery that can take place. I might ‘want’ to talk to a travel agent about where to visit in London, rather than simply turning up. I might also ‘want’ to speak to an investment advisor because I value their specific experience, or feel more comfortable speaking to a person (at least for now).

Also, there are many tasks that are needed that may prove too difficult or expensive to eliminate – at least in the short term. Getting to London quickly without an aircraft is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, for instance. Unless perhaps I am happy to ‘go there’ in a virtual reality experience without even leaving my home …

To stay relevant in the future of work, you need to really think about whether you are giving your customers what they want, or just what they need. If you are in fact a ‘necessary evil’ when it comes to why your customers are spending money with you, there is a good chance you won’t be necessary forever.

But if you can give a customer something they really want, they might keep you around a little longer.

Avoiding the zombie apocalypse – my speech to Airtasker Community Day

Last week I had the pleasure of addressing local startup Airtasker’s first annual Community Summit in Sydney. I’ve been following Airtasker and its founder Tim Fung’s progress almost since the beginning, and it was great to hear how he and his crew slugged it out to get to where they are now. It was also great to chat to a number of the people for whom Airtasking has become a signficant (and in some cases, sole) source of income.

In my speech I talked about my own journey from fulltime employment to freelancing – a lifestyle I have been embracing now for close to 13 years. What I love about the way I work now is the flesibilty to work across multiple projects simultaneously and assert some direction over my life – much more so than I ever felt I could in fulltime employment. Its something that many Airtaskers – or freelancers generally – struggle with, especially when freelancing is dismissed as a euphemism for being unemployed.

Hence my speech touched on the need for Airtaskers (and all people really) to plan out their lives and where they want to get to – and start thinking about the steps they will take to get from where they are now to where they want to be. I also spoke of the need to think of themselves as entrepreneurs – even if they are only ever going to manage a company of one employee – and learn some of the lessons of the startup community in terms of running a successful business.

One of my key lessons was the need to envision the future, and stay ahead of the disruptive changes the are eating away at the fringes of many professions – retailing, accounting, law – and of course, journalism. Often it takes a major event – such as a zombie apocalypse or the collpase of revenue from display advertising sales – to motivate us to change our skillsets and head in new directions.

But as anyone who has ever seen a zombie film knows, waiting for the apocalypse offers you little chance to avoid it.

A pragmatic approach to futurism (notes from a recent speech)

BradHowarth-025As a researcher, speaker and writer I spend a lot of time considering the future and the changes that might impact our lives. It is a fascinating pastime, and something I encourage all people to think about in my presentations on managing for change.

But there is one problem that emerges when you talk tabout the future. It’s a little like talking about a foreign country – a fascinating place perhaps, but one where people have no relatives or business ties. It might be interesting to them, and possibly somewhere they might like to visit someday, but it is not a topic that is relevant to the problems they face on a day-to-day basis.

With luck they will have learned something new and interesting, but how can they use that information? How will it help them when it comes to dealing with the problems they face today?

Thankfully, there are ways to harness the future to help in the present, although it took a science fiction author’s words to make me realise it.

The American writer William Gibson was the first to coin the term cyberspace, but he also once uttered one of the most powerful quotes I’ve heard when it comes to understanding the state of the world today: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

Put plainly, there is so much already happening in the world that we are not aware of, because it is not visible within our immediate experience. While it is vital that we think about the possibilities that the future might hold, it is equally vital that we ensure we are taking advantage of all the tools and processes that are actually already here.

In my presentations to community and industry groups I strive to ensure that each audience member takes away at least one concept or idea they can put into practice that very day. Whether it is using the plethora of web-based tools that can help us run businesses more efficiently, or tapping into the online global labour market for skills and services, or any of the thousands of ways new technologies and processes can pull cost out of our businesses and extend our reach … there are simply so many options available to us that can impact our lives today, long before we need to embrace any of the amazing ideas that the future holds.

And the beauty of many of these tools and processes is that the dividend they yield is the one commodity that most business owners find so precious – time. Many of these tools are free to try, and designed to be used with the minimum of training. And if they can shave an hour or two from the working week – particularly in administrative tasks that add no value to the business – they easily pay for themselves.

The future might be dazzling and bright, but you don’t need to wait for the trends of the future to create a positive impact for you and your business today.

For more information check out my profile page at Saxton Speakers Bureau.

My speech to the Geelong Communities accessing Technology Digital Inclusion Forum

City_of_Greater_Geelong_LogoLast year I signed up to be a Champion for the Infoxchange National Year of Digital Inclusion initiative, which seeks to raise awareness of the one-in-five Australian adults who are not yet online. As such I’ve been seeking out opportunities to discuss this issue, and seek out solutions.

Yesterday’s Communities accessing Technology Forum in Geelong was a great opportunity to so exactly that, as it bought together representatives from across local government and community services along with other interested parties to learn about and discuss digital inclusion. As the MC I was also asked to give a brief opening address, and I’ve pasted in the text below.

Communities accessing Technology Digital Inclusion Forum

The Importance of Digital Inclusion

I’ve been lucky to spend the last two decades studying the impact of technology on business, society and individuals. I’ve seen the pitfalls and the benefits, and I’d have to say the benefits easily outweigh the negatives.

To write about technology is to live somewhat in the future. But to quote the science fiction author William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I’d like to alter Gibson’s words today in the context of digital inclusion, to say that while the benefits of digital technology are here, those benefits are not evenly distributed.

We’ve long spoken of the concept of a digital divide, where society is classed into two classes of haves and have-nots – the information rich and information poor.

I’d also like to re-categorise that divide along the lines of the ‘access rich’ and the ‘access poor’, as being a participant in the digital age is about more than information. It is about access to services, on a 24/7 basis.

The divide can also be categorised from the perspective of skills. Without the skills necessary to act in a digital world, then the benefits of digital will also remain out of reach.

Today around one in five Australians do not have access to the benefits of digital services – that’s an estimated 1.1 million adults who have never accessed the internet. Throughout Australia there are pockets of society that the digital revolution has not yet touched – especially the age bracket of 65 and over, with 32 per cent not going online. For other groups the barriers are in terms of affordability, or access to infrastructure based on geography.

You’ll hear more stories later today on why this situation emerges, and about the factors that are creating these new classes of the access rich and the access poor. You’ll also be hearing success stories from those who are finding ways to tear down these barriers, and of programs that are designed to build on these successes to build a more digitally-inclusive society?

I’ve devoted a good part of the last few years exploring these issues, as a Champion for the Infoxchange National Year of Digital Inclusion initiative, and as an Ambassador for the Broadband for the Bush Alliance Forum. I’ve appreciated hearing stories firsthand from those who are living on the network’s fringe, such as how their kids’ education suffers when it rains, as the satellite signal can’t get through the rainclouds.

I spent last week in central west Queensland running a digital strategy workshop for the Queensland Government’s Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, working with small business owners to help them plot their own path forward.

The lesson that emerged for me was the importance of having skills resident in the local community. It struck me that the best solutions to the issues of digital inequality in society are those that are community led.

So I want to emphasise the importance of having community leaders who participate as role models, espousing their beliefs, and also enacting them. For a community to move forward it must be able to see the role models that are leading it forward, otherwise the concepts can be rejected.

But why is this important? Its my view that access to the digital world is becoming one of the key determinants of success in modern life, alongside other basic but essential services such as healthcare and education.

To live in this world without access to digital services is to live a life that is drifting farther and farther from mainstream society. The digital world provides access to a raft of services that are otherwise unattainable, in education, employment opportunities, and the the social fabric of society.

That list is constantly expanding, as more and more services migrate online. The current push by governments to a ‘digital first’ stance will only serve to highlight the disadvantages of not being online.

These changes on the whole will benefit society, but will these benefits be available to the whole of society?

Ultimately, that’s up to us.

My speech from the ASCA Smart Communities Summit

2014-concept-1-gif_0Last week I gave the opening ‘catalyst’ address for the Australian Smart Communities Association’s inaugural Smart Communities Summit in Caloundra. A Few people have since asked for the speech and the notes it includes on what defines a smart community, so I am Catalyst speech.

The event itself was both well attended and well constructed, with presentations from leading thinkers and practitioners involved in creating smart communities in Australia and around the world.

We have already begun planning for the follow-up event in 2017 – hope to see you there!

Australian Smart Communities Summit starts next week

2014-concept-1-gif_0On Wednesday next week I’ll be taking the reigns as MC of the inaugural Australian Smart Communities Summit, happening in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast.

While it might be too late to get yourself along, if you have an interest in smart communities/smart cities activity then please take a moment to fill out this survey, created by the ASCA and Tech Research Asia.

We are hoping this will be the start of an ongoing research program into the development of smart cities and communities in Australia.

Back to the Future reminds us to be careful what we wish for

BTTFWhen it comes to embracing new technologies, sometimes what seems like a great idea can have unintended negative consequences. Just ask all of the small business owners that used to make money from processing your rolls of holiday snaps on 35mm film …

Last weekend I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation on change and technology to a group of tyre dealers, on behalf of local Cooper Tires distributor Exclusive Tyres (yes, I never realised there was two different spellings either). As the presentation took place in the week of Back to the Future Day (when Marty and Doc travelled to 21 October 2015) , it seemed fitting to use the film as a starting point for the presentation, to point out the dangers of trying to predict the future.

One of the most memorable predictions that the film made was that skateboards would hover. The idea of a hoverboard captured popular imagination, and even led local hiphop artist Seth Sentry to ask ‘where’s my hoverboard?’ in his song ‘Dear Science‘. He definitely wasn’t alone in asking that question – most of the people in the audience conceded they’d buy one if they were on the market.

But great innovations like hover technology can have unintended consequences. If you can make a skateboard hover, then why not a car? And what don’t hoverboards have that skateboards have? Wheels.

So if you can make a hoverboard without wheels, it stands to reason that you can make a hovercar without wheels.

That’s not so good for anyone who sells tyres for a living.

Its anyone’s guess as to when we will see commercial hoverboards, but this Canadian inventor is one of many working hard to bring that dream to reality. It is a vision that perhaps should give tyre sellers cause to pause and think about their future.

Notes from the Broadband for the Bush Forum 2014 #bushbroadband

Track_to_Bellrock_Range1-980x360A couple of weeks ago I had the honour of being asked to speak at the third Broadband for the Bush forum, organised by the Broadband for the Bush Alliance, Desert Knowledge Australia and associated groups, and held in Alice Springs. For me it was an opportunity to immerse myself in topics that are of great personal interest to me – namely digital capability building and social inclusion in the digital age. It’s rare that I get a chance to spend two days with so many smart, passionate and motivated people, all coming together to solve problems for the common good.

I saw my job as being two-fold. In an after-dinner speech on the first night I spoke of the need to widen the discussion beyond telecommunications service providers, governments and the community to also include over-the-top service providers – commercial as well as government services – as they are a vital part of the overall digital service community. Hence I was happy to be able to welcome’s general manager Nikki Parker to the event – services such as Freelancer are what help drive access to income and productivity growth once the digital pipes are laid.

In my speech the following morning I tried to instil a sense of urgency into the discussion by talking about the dangers of letting the digital divide widen, while highlighting the great strides that other nations are taking in terms of accelerating their uptake of digital tools as a means of raising overall standards of living. I also talked about the need to raise the digital skills of all parts of Australian society in order to raise our overall competitiveness.

I’ve been meaning to write up a summary from the event since returning, but a recent bout of the common cold has battered my productivity. Hence I was happy to see Grant Young from the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence do an excellent job already – you can read his notes by clicking here.

You can also read the official communique from the event by clicking here.

I’d urge anyone who’s interested in the topics of social inclusion and capability building to consider coming to next year’s event.