Episode 34: March 13, 2009
by Lisa B. Marshall
This past Saturday afternoon, when I was supposed to be finalizing Monday's presentation for the NIH, my husband, Armando, said, "Honey, I'm thinking about going to a movie." Without hesitation my inner procrastinator replied, "OK, let's go." Unfortunately, when we arrived at the theater we couldn't agree on a movie, so he got a ticket for Watchmen and I got one for Slumdog Millionaire.
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Movies Can Help You Make Better Presentations
If you've seen this Oscar-winning movie or even just the trailer, you know it starts with a young man sitting in the hot seat and the screen reads, "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A) He cheated, B) He's lucky, C) He's a genius, D) It is written.” Immediately, I thought to myself, “Wow, what a great attention getter. I wonder if they'll return to this at the end.” Yes, I'm that much of a communication geek that I'm actually thinking about rhetorical devices: the attention getter and the residual message, which I’ll explain in a minute.
I love movies—not just because they're an enjoyable pastime, but also because I learn from them. (OK, I'll admit it: I often steal—well, use—ideas from movies for my own presentations.)
How Directors Do It
Movie directors know that all good stories begin by gaining attention and end by showing something concise and memorable. At the start of a movie, they say or show you something interesting to draw you in and to get you thinking about the overall theme of the movie. At the end of the movie, they’ll often return to the very same image or words. As moviegoers, we've all been trained to recognize this repetition as a signal that the movie is about to end; that we've come full circle and the story is now complete. More importantly this final simple image, if well done, encapsulates the overall message of the film and helps people remember and talk about the movie later.
Slumdog Millionaire does exactly that by starting with the quiz question I described and ending the film with “D) It is written.” The sentence signals the end of the movie and leaves the audience thinking about its universal themes of love and destiny.
The purpose of the attention getter is exactly that: to get your audience to notice and then focus. Your goal is to say something so interesting that they can’t help but focus their attention on you.
What Is the Attention Getter?
The purpose of the attention getter is exactly that: to get your audience to notice and then focus. People are generally distracted when a presentation begins: settling into their seats, thinking about their own agendas. Your goal is to say something so interesting that they can’t help but focus their attention on you. Besides, if you start with something interesting, you’ll be creating a very positive first impression, along with the anticipation that interesting stuff will continue to come.
How to Get Attention
So how do you do that without resorting to showing a silly, unrelated comic or telling a joke (which, by the way, is a bad idea, unless you are a naturally funny person!)? For the rest of us, there’re lots of options. You could use a quotation from literature or perhaps a quotation from the newspaper. You could make a comparison or use an analogy. You could tell a story… a personal story from your own life or a story that you read, or perhaps you could have the audience imagine being part of a hypothetical story. You can make a sweeping generalization, or share something surprising. You can show them something, quote statistical research, or ask a question. There are so many creative alternatives.
No matter what method you choose, it’s important to ensure that what you say is directly and closely related to the overall theme or themes of your talk. In fact, the closer the better. It’s also important to communicate the attention getter quickly and concisely—the quicker the better. For example your attention getter for a 20-minute talk shouldn’t take longer than 45 seconds or so.
Excellent Example from Slumdog Millionaire
The Slumdog Millionaire attention getter is excellent for several reasons. First, it introduces two main themes of the movie (cheating and destiny). (By the way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first answer is “He cheated” and the last answer is “It is written.” Research shows that people usually remember first and last items on a list.) Next, it’s in the form of a question, which is good because it encourages the audience to think, query, and conclude. Finally, because the question follows the quiz show format, it’s concise and introduces the context of the overall story. As far as attention getters go, this is a great example.
What Is the Residual Message?
So what about the residual message or memorable close? It serves two purposes. First, it directly states what the audience should remember long after the story or presentation has ended. In essence it deposits memorable mental residue into the brains of your audience. The second purpose, which is especially important for presentations, is to signal that the end has come. When the residual message is delivered effectively, the audience will be 100% sure that the talk is over. You won’t have to ask, “Are there any questions?” to let the audience know you’re done.
How to Create a Memorable Close
So, how do you create a memorable close? You can use the same suggestions I mentioned for an opening. For example, you could choose a question for your opening and then close with a quotation or open with an analogy and close with a statistic.
As with the opening, it’s important for your residual message to closely reflect the theme. It needs to be even shorter than your opening, maybe 15 to 20 seconds for most presentations. Finally, if you can come up with only one creative idea, it’s certainly OK to just repeat the opening, but do so in a slightly different way, as they did in Slumdog Millionaire.
Always Incorporate Attention Getters and Residual Messages
So today’s quick and dirty tip is to encourage you to always incorporate attention getters and residual messages, whether you are telling a story at the dinner table or making a formal presentation. In my experience, these elements are often missing. It seems that most people feel they aren’t creative enough or they don’t think they have enough time to develop them. However, having a strong, attention-getting opening and a concise, memorable close can significantly enhance any story and it’s really not that hard to accomplish.
So even though this past Saturday I didn’t work on my presentation, it turns out I was working after all—on this podcast. P.S. Did you notice? I used a story for my opening and a story for my close.
This is Lisa B. Marshall. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.
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If you have a question, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.