Curiosity

Many presenters tell their audience everything but fail to make them curious for anything.

It’s exactly the other way around: Start from curiosity and ignore everything else at the beginning. If you manage to tap into your audience’s curiosity, they will follow you down that rabbit hole. Wanting you to tell them more. Ever more. Until you’ve told them everything.

Sadly, most presentations turn that on its head. They hope to make people curious for something by telling them everything. Which rarely works. If only because most people have long tuned out before they’ve reached their point of interest.

So, what would make your audience curious to know more?

PS: If you’re unsure about how to do this, an instant clarity call can help.

Fake tension vs. real tension

Bad newspapers lead with fake tension.
Great newspapers lead with real tension.
What’s the difference?

Fake tension is created by holding information back.
Real tension is created by the information itself.

Here’s an example:

A. Scientists made a sensational discovery. Click to learn why space as we know it is about to change.

B. Scientists were able to create a wormhole in the lab. Read on to learn the story behind the discovery.

The first version doesn’t tell me what’s so sensational. I’ll have to click to find out. Most of the time, I’ll be disappointed because, well, wormholes aren’t the usual reveal. More often than not, what the writer called sensational, turns out to actually be lame to me.

The second version does tell me what’s sensational. The crucial difference, though, is that it trusts the reader to judge this. It doesn’t pretend to know better than me what I find sensational. It trusts me with that decision.

The problem with fake tension is that it easily becomes addictive for the writer. Because it works. At least for a while. People do click to find out. Which makes it appear as though the readers appreciate that kind of writing.

Real tension, however, is a lot harder to create. Because it requires empathy. What is it that my readers are actually interested in?

But when you consistently figure that out, not only do you get rid of fake tension. But because you deliver on your promise of real tension, you create trusted long-term relationships.

So, what do your customers actually find sensational? What creates real tension for them?

Audience responsibility

One of the newer trends on LinkedIn is to tease a post with a provocative statement and then use some blank lines so that you need to click on read more to get to the reveal.

It works.

Until it stops working.

Which happens when audiences will have learnt that the tension that was created by the statement is usually just fake tension. That more often than not the reveal isn’t really worth it.

Which is when the next trend will take over.

That works.

Until it stops working.

Because audiences will have learned that the tension that was created by the trend is usually just fake tension.

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Audiences are just as much responsible for great communication as are the communicators. What gets applause, will get amplified.

If you decide that fake tension is not worth amplifying, you shouldn’t applaud it.

The storytelling difference

There’s a huge difference between telling stories DURING a speech and telling a story WITH your speech.

Most storytelling advice aims at the former. It helps you tell anecdotes and share experiences effectively.

But too often it stops there. It’s used to decorate the communication or hammer home a point.

But the most compelling pieces of communication go way beyond that. They don’t merely tell stories. They turn the whole piece into a compelling story that takes the audience on a profound journey.

Interestingly, professional speakers often excel at the former but fail at the latter. They are super good at sharing experiences and telling anecdotes to hammer home a point. But way too often their speech as a whole lacks a compelling structure and a clear story arc.

Keep reading

Here’s a simple truth that great authors understand:
We start reading. Then we keep reading.

In other words: The story unfolds. Step by step.

Specifically, a story is not told by dumping everything the author knows at once. We don’t learn the backstory of the hero on page 1. We learn it when we’re ready to learn it … when it’s exactly the information that keeps us reading.

Looking at storytelling through that lens means that it might be simpler than most storytelling frameworks suggest. Basically, we face two challenges:

  1. We need to get our audience’s attention.
  2. We need to keep it.

Specifically, we don’t need to tell our audience everything at once. We only need to make them keep reading. (Or listening. Or watching.)

The good news is that this starts with the simple skill of listening. The better you listen, the better you’ll be able to understand what resonates so strongly that it will get – and keep – your audience’s attention.

The complete picture

Many communicators struggle with the challenge to convey a complete picture of their topic to their audience. After all, it’s quite a complex topic to understand if you care for the details. Also, your product is a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

Yet, the actual challenge might be much simpler than that.

Because effectively, all you need to do is to tell me one thing that makes me curious to hear the next thing.

When you’ve achieved that, all you need to do is to tell me one more thing that makes me curious to hear the third thing.

Step by step.

When you do this repeatedly, eventually you’ll have told me everything but it doesn’t feel nearly as tedious as we’re used to from the usual approach to communicating.

When you want me to understand the complete picture of your idea, the challenge is not to tell me everything.

The challenge is to figure out what’s the one thing that makes me want to know more.

If you want me to get the complete picture, get me to want the complete picture. A much simpler approach. And much more related to what matters to your audience rather than to yourself.

If it absolutely has to be a meeting

A boring meeting is a great opportunity to catch up with unread mails. Sure.

But why not address the cause instead of the symptoms? Why not work to prevent boring meetings from happening rather than look for ways to re-use boring meeting time?

The best way is to turn it into a doing.

But if it absolutely has to be a meeting, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Cut the meeting time to one-third. And mean it. This is easy if everyone leaves out the boring two-thirds.
  • Take a vote 5 minutes into each presentation asking: “Do you want to learn more?” Only move on if the majority vote is “Yes.” (You will be amazed at how much relevance you can fit into 5 minutes.)
  • Use the Saari principle: anyone may ask “Who gives a damn?” at any time during the meeting. If the presenter or meeting leader doesn’t have an answer to that, the presentation is over.
  • Like Amazon, forgo presentations in favour of a study hall. Instead of presentations, employees prepare memos. Reserve (let’s say) 30 minutes at the beginning of each meeting exclusively to reading these memos.
  • Publicly rate the meeting as well as the organiser. This way you can quickly see who organises and leads meetings in a way that makes a difference.

Don’t give in to boring meetings, change them.
(And it always starts with ourselves).

The two kinds of suspense

There are two types of suspense: artificial and intrinsic.

Artificial suspense is what TV casting shows do to you right before an ad brake. They could tell you but don’t – because they know that as soon as they’ve told you, tension falls apart and you walk away (possibly disappointed because the reveal fell short of the promise).

Intrinsic suspense is the opposite. It’s what great stories do. They do tell you! Because that’s precisely why you want to know more.

Revealing the information opens up your curiosity as opposed to shutting it down. It’s much more the start of a new thread rather than the end of the previous one. Rather than walk away because you got what you wanted, it makes you stay because you want to know what happens next.

The same can be achieved with a great marketing story – when your story is so relevant that your audience absolutely needs to hear more about it.

It could e.g. be an eye opener … exactly what they wanted to hear … just what they’ve been looking for all along without even realising it themselves.

And so they beg you to tell them more: How does that work? What would it cost? What would we need to change? What are the requirements? Is there more to it? Can this be applied to other problems? When can we start?

If your product is that good, if it’s exactly the product your customers have been waiting for, then you can skip artificial suspense. You don’t need to hold the best part back. You can reveal it because it’s precisely the thing that makes them want to know more.

In essence, the relevant question to ask is not “How do you make your topic exciting?” but “Why is that crucially relevant for your audience?”

And if it isn’t … then, sure, you can reach for artificial suspense. But the better approach would be to work on relevance.

tb;dr

No! Most likely the reason why you didn’t bother to read the piece was not that it was too long but that it was too boring.

People have no issue with longform if they give a damn. People binge watch 5 episodes of Game of Thrones in a row and read books until late in the night. While skipping tweets and TikTok reels.

If someone has an issue sticking with a piece of communication, length is most likely not the issue.

It’s much more likely that either this piece is just not for you or that the creator of that piece didn’t care enough about who gives a damn and why.

So, for you: Who? And why?

And when it’s me, then draw me in. Step by step – at each step giving me a reason to care for this step.

Why crime stories work

The human brain is basically a prediction machine. At any given time, it tries to figure out what happens next. Tension comes from the uncertainty about the prediction: Will the prediction match the true course of events?

That’s e.g. why criminal stories are so popular. It’s also why we love a good riddle or puzzle. We love to figure things out (and be right about it).

Tension increases when hope joins the party. When we hope for a certain outcome, it hurts even more when that outcome doesn’t come true – e.g. because we sympathised with one of the parties involved in the criminal story. Or we rooted for one side in a tennis match.

Movies make shameless use of this. Great movies let us anticipate how the story unfolds only to leave us in the uncertain about whether we’re actually right. Worse: Even if they resolve part of the story, they will leave at least one piece open so that there’s always something to anticipate and predict.

Great communicators create tension by using this principle, too. They trigger our prediction machine and then use our anticipation of the resolution to keep us hooked. They might e.g. show us a clever way to solve one of our problems and then use our desire to figure this out and make it work for us to lead us to listen to them, glued to their lips, for more than an hour.

(PS: If you want to learn how to make use of this in your own communication, you might want to consider joining my masterclass “Leaders Light the Path” which launches this fall. Get notified here.)

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz