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Hit 'em where they ain’t

Brain science shows us that people don’t read, watch or hear word by word. They unconsciously scan for patterns from which to make predictions. How engaged they are is shaped by how much they feel their predictions are validated or refuted. This has two major implications.

The first is simple: it’s useful to signpost your communications so the audience can see where you’re going. If pattern recognition is too tough, the audience will tune out or give up.

The second is trickier: the pattern shouldn’t be too easy. If communication is too obvious, the audience will start drifting towards matters more engaging, like what’s for dinner tonight. Here are 3 ways to avoid this:

  • First, demand something of your audience. One of the simplest options is to ask a question - audience members won’t be able to stop themselves answering. Other ‘asks’ include: polling, competitions, Q&A, online message boards or some physical challenge. In some of our events we used a ‘rugby ball’ microphone for Q&A; each speaker would need to catch the mic to speak and then throw it to the next person.

  • Second, mix up the format and see what resonates best. A leadership message doesn’t have to look like one; it could be a poem, a quiz, a card, or a contest. When covid struck we replaced the traditional new year CEO message with a digital greeting card hyperlinked to an online game with prizes. Engagement doubled.

  • Third, have fun with a bait-and-switch. It can be impactful to introduce a surprise just when the audience think they’ve ‘got it’. For one CEO’s final townhall, we planned two events: one he thought would happen, then the real one. We allowed the CEO to lead his event for the first five mins, before hijacking it to both his and the audience’s surprise.

All this recalls Baseball legend Willie Keeler's famous dictum: “Keep your eye on the ball and hit 'em where they ain't”. Signposting helps the audience anticipate direction but, from time to time, it’s worth trying a surprise hit they didn’t see coming. That can feel risky. In my experience though, the bigger risk is to play too safe. You might swing and miss but you also might hit it out of the park. Sometimes that’s the only way to win.

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