Helping Your Audience Become Better Listeners: Two Keys for Delivering a Memorable Message

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Don’t take offense, but your audience does not hang on your every word when you deliver a business presentation. Research shows that people’s minds wander about every 22 seconds — no matter how powerful the message. One reason is because people think much faster than you talk, so your message must compete with the mental narratives your listeners create to fill the gaps. This means you cannot expect your audience simply to follow and retain everything you say. You need to actively focus your audience’s listening. There are several ways you can do this.

One of the best ways to focus your audience’s listening is through signposting. This means using verbal cues like traffic signs to help your listeners focus on what you are saying and anticipate what is coming next. Common signposts include numbering the items you are talking about or categorizing them in some way that is logical for your presentation, such as north, south, east, west, or categorizing levels of importance, for instance.

Signposting is most effective when you let your listeners know up front how many key points your message will include. Think about it like creating file folders in your listeners’ minds. This allows your listeners to keep a mental checklist, noticing and anticipating your transitions from one point to the next. Your signposts — which can be as simple as “one,” “two,” “three” — give people, who have mentally wandered, a chance to reengage with your message without feeling lost. In this way, your audience will always know where you are in your presentation.

Incorporating stories as examples for technical or abstract concepts 
If you are presenting extremely technical or abstract, hypothetical information, your audience may find it difficult to sustain a strong level of attention. Research Elizabeth Macdonald Delivering a Memorable Messagehas shown that processing this type of information demands more effort of the listeners, and their ability to sustain their full attention to what you are saying may drop off. If you notice that your audience seems to be fading when you are delivering highly technical or abstract information, you can re-engage their attention by inserting an example in the form of a short story. This gives people time to rest their minds and refocus on what you are saying. Once they are re-engaged, you can return to the main content of your presentation. Because the insertion of short stories as examples is so effective, be sure to plan for them when preparing presentations, especially those that contain highly technical/abstract information.

Your audience may not remember everything you say. But you can improve retention if you incorporate these two techniques.

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Elizabeth Macdonald

Elizabeth Macdonald is a published author, business communication specialist, and the founder of Applied Wisdom Consulting, providing coaching and training in business communications and resume services. She has over 15 years’ experience teaching business/managerial communication to 6,000+ MBA students at the top-ranked Thunderbird School of Global Management, and has developed executive programs for Intel, American Express, Henkel and First Solar. Elizabeth has traveled to over 50 countries on 4 continents; her extensive international experience greatly benefits clients as they position themselves for success in today’s global business environment. As the Director of Business Communication at Thunderbird, Elizabeth delivered innovative and effective programs, tools, and strategies. With a Master's degree from the Monterey Institute, and a BA from Bryn Mawr, Elizabeth lead Peace Corps training programs in Europe, Asia and Africa, and was later hired as the youngest Sector Specialist for Peace Corps in Washington DC, responsible for training staff and developing innovative, sustainable education programs world-wide. In one-on-one coaching, Elizabeth is known for her strong insight, helping others better understand themselves personally and professionally – whether developing a presentation or preparing a resume with impact.

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