I recently saw a brilliant speaker…

…who made a brilliant mistake.

I was at a networking luncheon where various entrepreneurs meet up and trade business cards within the context of a guest speaker giving a talk. This happens at this particular location on a regular basis, and often the speaker presents a topic on something like business development or venture capital.

But this speaker was different. This speaker was a woman who helped people to overcome the limiting beliefs that keep them from finding success. And because she was presenting to entrepreneurs, she tailored her talk to be related to that particular subject. She introduced herself, told us a bit about her background, and stated what we were going to talk about. At first glance, this sounds like an appropriate way to start a talk.

It also forms the basis of her brilliant mistake.

After she was done with introducing herself and her topic, she held up a ten-dollar bill. She told us that the first person to come and get it would get to keep it. And people were supposed to fall over each other in order to get to the money first, right?

Wrong. In fact, no one moved for several seconds, and then finally a guy came along and took it from her.

Afterwards, she asked us to report the reasons why we stayed in our seats. This was, apparently, the standard response to this exercise, and our reasons ranged from being fearful of seeming greedy to being skeptical that the offer was for real.

This exercise was intended to demonstrate to us how our thoughts get in our way of acting. The fact that I’m able to recall the experience as I did for this article demonstrates that the exercise stuck with me. In paying attention to her and retaining the material some time later, I was successfully engaged. I am able to relate to the take-away of her talk as a whole, which was to encourage us to recognize and shed the various thoughts that stand in our way of moving forward in life.

But what, then, was the mistake?

Often, when people give talks, speeches, pitches, lessons, and workshops, they start off with a self-conscious, qualified introduction. “Thank you for being here,” one might say. “I feel like I have butterflies!” another might confess. Or, like in the case with this speaker, they might just provide a bio about themselves that is only peripherally related to the rest of the content. Where is that speaker from? I have no idea, even though she described her upbringing. What is she most passionate about? I can’t really remember that, either.

She started with the most vanilla introduction she could, and only got to the most compelling part of the talk after warming up to it for over five minutes.

ice-cream-406827_1280So why didn’t she just start with the exercise with the money? What if, after she was introduced by the host, she just held up that ten dollars and waited? She hadn’t even built a rapport with us yet, so that would have heightened our discomfort even more.

By delving right into the most compelling part of her material, she would have taken us away from whatever thoughts we were having about the quality of the lunch we just had, the list of errands we had to run that evening, the conversation we had just been having and were disappointed to have to end for the talk, or even wondering when the latest season of The Walking Dead was going to appear on Netflix. Who knows what we were thinking about right before she started, and by qualifying her talk with a showing of appreciation and other things that aimed for the most predictable form of communication, she ensured that there was only a chance that we were paying attention to her.

Our greatest chance of engaging our audience comes from surprising them with compelling content right away. We could ask them a provocative question, offer an interesting analogy, or, like this article, start with a story.

Last year, I attended a workshop intended for TEDx speakers of an event down in San Diego because I was helping a few of them to put together their talks. The person giving the workshop didn’t start the workshop by thanking anyone for being there or giving us his bio. He delved right into the action of a story. Rather than be vanilla, he took a risk and demanded his audience pay attention. And, given all of the interested questions he got throughout the workshop, it was clear that it had.

We have an opportunity to inspire change in others through our content—but that is far less likely to happen if they haven’t even noticed we are there in the first place.

Most speakers make a critical mistake in the first 15 seconds of their speech.  Click below to find out how to avoid making this common mistake.


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