Cogent Communicator: Reeling in Tuned-Out Audiences

Cogent Communicator: Reeling in Tuned-Out Audiences

BY Susan de la Vergne Posted: 16 Jul 2015

If you’ve looked around at your fellow airline passengers while taxiing along before take-off, you’ve no doubt noticed that everyone ignores the safety demonstration. Whether it’s a live, in-person flight attendant demonstrating the life vest and seatbelt, or a video presentation about the familiar precautions, most of us tune it out. How many times do we need to be told to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others and to insert the metal buckle into the flap, then pull the strap tight and low across the waist?

And besides, how often have we needed those instructions? We get that it’s important to be prepared for an emergency, but we’re not really thinking that on this trip we’ll actually have to remember not to inflate the life vest inside the aircraft. So while the important messages are imparted, we glaze over, do other things, and ignore.

Have you ever had the feeling that’s what people do when they get your status report, design documents, planning report, how-to instructions, or other written deliverables? Do they open and read eagerly, or do they glaze over when they see it coming?

Or when they come to hear you make a presentation, are they tuned in or out?

If it’s the latter, here’s some refreshing inspiration from—of all places—Delta Airlines.

A couple of weeks ago on a Delta flight, we’re taxiing along at LAX, and I am (as usual) ignoring the safety video when, out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the “passenger” in the video. He’s supposed to be stowing a suitcase in the overhead, but instead he hoists a pizza peel (that flat, long-handled tool for reaching into hot ovens). Instead of luggage, he casually slides a wood-fired pizza into the overhead compartment.

Say what?

I keep watching.

Next scene: the flight attendant asks three passengers seated in the exit row (identical triplets, grown men dressed alike) if they are willing and able to comply with crew member instructions should the need arise. Simultaneously, all three say “No,” and abruptly rise from their seats. Moments later, the three return wearing fake mustaches. They sit down and agree to help.

A few days later on my return trip to L.A. I watched the entire video with new appreciation for Delta Airlines, at least when it comes to communication. Someone there knows how to get the attention of a tuned-out audience: Do something your audience doesn’t expect.

When you’re trying to reel in a tuned-out audience, this axiom is easy advice to keep in mind, and you don’t have to put on a fake mustache to make it happen.

Predictability: The Death of Message

Business and technical communicators stick to certain norms when it comes to writing and speaking, rarely varying the way they communicate, so tuned-out audiences tend to stay tuned-out. Presentations, for example, often begin predictably. “Good morning, thank you for coming, here’s our agenda.” Written deliverables do, too, opening with boilerplate intros on page 1 which restate the project purpose, scope, duration, and other blah-blah readers already know.

The problem with predictable beginnings is that they set up the audience for something no more engaging than a pre-flight safety demonstration. Predictable intros leave audiences flat, because they signal that the presentation will be drab and the document will be dull reading.

Form vs. Content

I’m not talking about content. The content of a technical presentation or document is often very interesting, even groundbreaking or worthy of celebration! But the form that these business and technical communications use to deliver fascinating content rarely lives up to the excitement.

For example, when announcing a breakthrough—problem solved, shortcut discovered, or something similar—technical presenters making these announcements rarely seem to enjoy the news. Smiling is an easy way to convey excitement, but most presenters seem to think smiling isn’t an accepted convention!

Boilerplate introductory paragraphs also strangle interesting information in lifeless delivery. These boilerplate introductions are sometimes even institutionalized in “required” templates! I realize templates are to help people write more easily, but if they take all the vitality out of the news, they need to be revised.

New Beginnings

Freshen up your introductions.

Documents should start with the key message for this document, not with standard stuff that introduces every document about this project or product (i.e., the standard boilerplate). If the important point of this document is to describe the plan to optimize performance of a specific software function, put that news flash in the first paragraph:

Initial performance testing during the Alpha project construction phase reveals that throughput of the interface, as designed, does not yet meet requirements.  Our plan is to decrease runtime by 25%, and in this document we’ll describe the specifics of the plan for doing so.

Okay, so Stephen King would have written something more attention-grabbing, but it’s better than starting with a ho-hum, re-hash overview of the project. You can still put the project overview elsewhere in the document as a reference for readers who haven’t been keeping up, but don’t lead with it.

How to Begin a Presentation

When it comes to presentations, try something your audience isn’t expecting. Instead of the usual ho-hum openings, begin with either:

  • A thought-provoking question
  • A compelling data point or idea

Either one gets your audience’s attention in ways that “Thank you for being here” never will.

Say you work in medical device design and manufacture, and you’re going to make a presentation about an enhancement for a device aimed at improving the ability to diagnose thoracic problems. You could start with a question:

Does anyone here know when the last breakthrough in thoracic diagnostics occurred?

Or a compelling data point (preferably something verified by a credible source, unlike the example you’re about to read):

One in 20 adults seeks medical help for back pain. Only one in 100 reports ever receiving an accurate diagnosis.

The question or the data point could be used to introduce the urgent need for improvements to diagnostics, which you, as the presenter, are about to explain.

Say you work in software development for a massive, complex CRM system, and you’re trying to persuade management to re-write an entire module. This module is so unlike the rest of your system that it’s difficult to maintain and in serious need of a re-design. You’re going to try to persuade your audience that this is a priority. Here’s how you could begin:

In the last six months, we’ve spent five times as much programmer time on maintenance work for Module X as we have for any other module in our system, and we have only two people who know how the thing actually works. (Interesting data points, followed by) These are two of six financially responsible reasons to re-write Module X, which we believe needs to be done sooner rather than later.

The Payback of Punching It Up

Breathe zing back into your deliverables, even slightly, and your readers and presentation audiences will tune in. They’re more likely to remember what you said, read what you’ve written, and open what you send. If anyone questions your new approach, tell them you have it on good authority that improving communication saves everyone time, and you’re just trying to help improve the bottom line.

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Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time.

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Robert Mckillip
Southwest Airlines does something similar - the flight attendants are encouraged to deliver their message with humor. That, like the Delta video, provides something to the audience to keep it engaged: entertainment, as well as the "surprise" factor.
Posted on 7/22/15 12:17 PM.
Nancy Barr
Great advice, especially for educators. Early morning and late afternoon classes require some change-ups to keep everyone engaged, especially during lectures, which are necessary sometimes.
Posted on 7/22/15 1:58 PM.
Christianna White
This is good content, and I wanted to support it by recommending Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields by Traci Nathans-Kelly and Christine G. Nicometo (IEEE Press 2014). This is THE best, most comprehensive, research-based resource for anyone who wants to present so the audience members are so engaged that their eyes never even get the chance to glaze over.

You can get the trade paperback or the Kindle version from Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/p8y86kt

Naturally I tried to find the book on the IEEE/IEEE Press site(s), and after fumbling around finally succeeded. However, starting from the IEEE Publications and Standards tab, it took 7 clicks to identify the series, with a link to the series editor, but no way to purchase the book from our site. Even worse, entering various combinations, including "Slide Rules:" in the Google search field never returned a hit on the title (including the quote marks did include hits on the first page that were at least related to this fine resource.

IEEE, I don't want to hear any more whining about $$$. Get with the program and promote our own state-of-the-art products on IEEE domains. We can do better. We can do much better. (With a nod to Michael Alley.)
Posted on 7/26/15 5:12 PM.
Greg Hill
Thank you for your comments and for your excellent suggestion. I can appreciate your frustration with finding Ms. Nathans-Kelly and Ms. Nicometo's book, and will share your comments with our pubs team. As a general rule, the easiest and fastest way to find most IEEE publications, courses, journals & magazine, and standards is through the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields can be found at: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/bkabstractplus.jsp?bkn=6798072
Posted on 7/30/15 11:56 AM in reply to Christianna White.