Sleep is an interesting phenomenon. Our conscious awareness, our faculty of attention, shuts down for hours at a time, every day. We all do it. We all need it. But for some of us, it poses an interesting problem. In this 9-to-5 society of meetings and deadlines, it’s incredibly important to wake up in the mornings at the times we need to. But many people find this difficult. Even if the sun rises, and the noise of traffic traffic intensifies, they will keep on sleeping. These things are all too subtle to engage the sleepers’ attention and wake them up.
Enter the alarm clock industry. They started by developing jarring noises. Think of the original, mechanical alarm clocks. These work for many people. But others slept right through them. They even reported that these noises worked their way into dreams, but causing no impetus to awake. Then, in the digital age, alarm tones were specially designed to engage the conscious attention. They are loud, periodic and fluctuating in tone. These are the alarm tones that you might find today on your smart phone. But, like an arm’s race, these seemed to lose their effectiveness for some people. This ushered in a whole new breed of alarm clock. These are interactive clocks that won’t turn off until you engage with them. For example, an alarm clock with wheels will roll off of your nightstand and around your room until you get up and turn it off. It seems like people will go to extraordinary efforts to wake up in time.
The growth of the alarm clock industry gives us an interesting insight into human nature. The whole struggle addresses an important question: what grabs our attention? But the scope of the answer reaches well-beyond the alarm clock industry. It had dramatic lessons for your speaking effectiveness. If you think about it, many audiences are in a state that closely resembles sleep. Their bodies are immobile and their conscious attention can be disengaged. To avoid this, you need to perform the function of an alarm clock. You need to get them and keep them awake.
The third unbreakable rule is to speak with variety. Your audience expects you to keep them engaged. Nothing is worse than a droning monotone speaker. Haven’t we all experienced this at one point or another? It’s an instant turn off. It disengages us and drains our energy. Our attention starts drifting around for something else, anything else, that holds our interest. Needless to say, if you produce this feeling in your audience, than your presentation is dead in the water.
Your primary concern should be to hold the attention of your audience. This is the cost of admission. If you can’t hold their attention, then you can’t communicate with them. And if you can’t communicate with them, then your whole presentation fails. Every human being has a limited attention span. We ignore things that don’t change. I once had a spot of paint on the wall of my house. I intended to paint over it, but I was so busy that the days slipped away from me. Then I forgot all about it. Until, one day, I had company over. And then someone else noticed it and made a friendly comment. And I thought, “Oh my gosh! That spot of paint put me asleep because it never changed!”
If things don’t change then people lose interest. You can call it wrong, immoral, immature and rude — and there might be some truth to that. But it’s the reality. And as a speaker, it’s a reality that you must come to terms with. (Be Kirk not Spock)
Use vocal variety. This means that you should vary your volume, tone, speed and pitch. Sometimes you should speak softly and slowly, like an intimate whisper between friends. Other times you should speak loudly and quickly, rising to a mighty crescendo of emotion. But here’s the secret: if its all whispers or all crescendo, then you risk turning off your audience. It’s got to include both. You’ve got to hit them with a whisper and then hit them with a mighty bellow. You should both laugh and cry, speaking sometimes with gravity and other times with levity. This will keep them awake, their attention focused on your presentation, and receptive to your message.
But what if you’re a not a naturally expressive person? Then be expressive within the context of your personality. In fact, you probably have many ways to express great variety, naturally, without compromising yourself. Sometimes to get the point across to an American introvert, I sometimes give the example of a Japanese citizen. Overall, the Japanese maintain a very stoic and stolid expression. But have you ever seen a Japanese person communicate with a non-English speaker? It’s a cornucopia of (non-verbal) expression. They use words with great variety, not because its their culture, but because they must use variety to communicate. And if the stoic Japanese can do this, then anybody can. You just need a sincere desire to communicate.
Remember that a speech is a performance. In fact, all social interaction is a performance. Words are tools that you can use to help you get what you want. The same is true with your tone and expression. Many people make the mistake of using words and tone dogmatically, even through it doesn’t give them what they want. A monotone speaker won’t change his speaking style, stubbornly claiming that “that’s just who I am.” But then he gets frustrated that nobody follows his recommendations. He needs to put these two things together. He needs to prioritize which is more important to him, his style of expression or the results that he seeks. If he thinks about and earnestly decides that he prefers his own style of expression, then he should become and artist or a poet. But if he wants efficacy and results, then he must change his communication style. He must accept that his speech is a performance, hopefully a sincere performance, but a performance nonetheless. And this is what we must all accept, so that we can begin making our speaking style as effective as possible.
This essay is part of our “10 Unbreakable Rules of Speaking”