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.