Business & Careers

Want People to Listen When You Speak? Try These Easy Adjustments

BY Nicole Lipkin

how to capture audience attention

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Being able to capture the attention of your audience — be it an auditorium of hundreds of people, a conference room, a one-on-one conversation or an Instagram Live — is a crucial skill for anyone aspiring to hold a leadership position.

Ever catch yourself saying, “This might be stupid, but…”? Or how about, “You might not agree with this, but…” We all do it. But it can be done to a fault, particularly in the workplace where you want to project confidence and self-assurance.

And what’s to gain? If what you end up saying does happen to be stupid or disagreeable, you’re going to find out as soon as you say it. If, however, you preface what you’re going to say with the suggestion that it might be stupid, you’re planting the seed that your opinions are worthless.

Given the reality of the glass ceiling, you want to give yourself every possible chance to succeed. The goal is to remove obstacles, not create more. Doing this is as simple as paying attention to the way that you speak. Here's what you need to know…

What makes someone instantly trustworthy?

On a primitive, neurochemical level, the brain wants to know whether someone can be trusted or not. A 2015 study done by McGill University researchers Xiaoming Jiang and Marc Pell discovered that our brains assess the confidence level of whoever is speaking to us in under a second.

That doesn’t allow much wiggle room for charming humility. By the time you’re saying, “This might sound stupid…” your listener’s brain has flipped the off switch, so to speak.

The brain’s natural proclivity is to trust tones that are lower in pitch, have a flatter intonation and a faster speech rate. 

Tones that have a higher pitch, a slower speech rate and, most importantly, rise in pitch at the end like a suggestive question – i.e. upspeak – are neurologically considered not confident.

Higher and lower pitches – faster and slower speech rates – it’s all a tad abstract. How are we supposed to know if we’re talking high or low, fast or slow? As women, our voices are going to naturally be higher than men’s. 

Are you asking or telling?

What’s not abstract though is ending statements as questions. This is kind of a tall order as even the most confident among us fall prey to the occasional upspeak. The point is to be aware of it. Be aware of the tone with which you finish your statements. If you catch yourself frequently ending your statements in a question, it might be worthwhile to examine why.

A great place to study tone is TED Talks. You’ll notice that speaker after speaker does not use disclaimers or end their statements in upspeak. This is because, as a Ted Talk speaker, they need to project confidence and expertise.

Society would like women to remain insecure and unsure of what they’re saying. That might be why we – more often than men – use upspeak and preface our points with disclaimers.

So, the question remains: are you feeling insecure about what you’re saying or who you’re speaking to? If the answer is no and you internally do feel confident about what you’re saying then there’s really no need to finish your statements as questions.

Again, give yourself a fighting chance in the professional world where you’ll be up against men overflowing with overconfidence.

You’ve got their attention, how do you keep it?

When you want people to buy into you and/or your message, tell stories. Since the beginning of time, humans have connected through stories. If you want to make a memorable point, tell a story. That will drive home the moral more surely than the most well-reasoned abstract argument. 

Storytelling provides a common ground where people can share their experiences with others. Although each person may interpret the story differently, everyone gets the point, and it increases the chance of the audience connecting with the speaker.

In fact, a 2010 research study done by Princeton University neuroscientists Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert, and Uri Hasson found that when one person tells a story, the brains of the listeners tend to synchronize (i.e., light up in the same ways). Moreover, they discovered that successful storytelling creates neural coupling between speaker and listener, meaning the same areas of the brain in both speaker and listener light up.

These general findings support the idea that communicating through storytelling creates a mental dance between a speaker and an engaged listener.

If you aspire to one day have your own TED Talk, lead meetings at your company, or simply run a brand that people trust, grabbing and holding people’s attention will make or break you. Follow these tips to capture audience attention and you will instantly boost your chances of success in business and in life.


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