If something interests you, that’s wonderful. But you have probably found out the hard way that it may not be interesting to everybody else. So it’s perhaps reassuring to recall that nothing is boring in itself. It’s context that makes it boring – or interesting.
Imagine that you are on a long journey, and you have a seat reservation. After a little while, your neighbour introduces himself and mentions his line of work:
- He’s a producer with one of the big studios in Hollywood
- He’s a special adviser at 10 Downing Street
- He works in scaffolding
It’s probably true for most people that 1. or 2. would sound fascinating, because our general everyday culture considers those roles to be glamorous. It’s possibly also true that most people, hearing 3., would groan inwardly and hope the conversation doesn’t go on too long – perhaps even reach in a bag for a book, or even pretend to fall asleep.
Of course, this scenario would not typically be called public speaking, or presenting, but remember: by answering 1. or 2. the speaker will have typically won himself an audience, while with 3. he will have lost one.
As you know, having lived through something a bit like this, probably many times, the situation is not unalterable. The willing audience can still be lost by the Downing Street adviser bragging, or in any number of other ways, and the reluctant audience can still be won over. I’ll come back to both those possibilities later. For now, I want simply to observe that context is important.
If the man who works in scaffolding were speaking to a conference of property developers and builders, his insights might suddenly seem terribly important, even thrilling.
Whereas the Hollywood producer, addressing those same property developers and builders, might quickly lose their interest and goodwill if he wasted their time peddling gossip about movie stars. To keep their attention, he would need to find an expression of his own interests that overlaps with theirs. Something like: “What the building industry could learn from Hollywood.” Or, “How making a film is like building a penthouse.”
Again, this is something that most of us grow into doing in everyday conversation. We try to find a common interest. But when it comes to “public speaking” or presenting to an audience, some people forget about the norms of conversation and switch to a weird form of one-way broadcast.
Most audiences don’t want to be lectured by somebody who ignores their own interests, any more than you do when you are stuck besides somebody chatty on a long journey.
By the same token, an expert audience of property developers doesn’t want to be spoken to by our friend in scaffolding as if they knew nothing about the matter in hand – as if they were a stranger on a train. The conference audience are already experts. They don’t want to hear what they already know. They want a clear message – something either challenging or reassuring (or both) about an important and current issue.
Which is to say: a really general overview of scaffolding, while possibly acceptable to a stranger on the train, is too general for a conference full of experts.
The more narrowly you focus the topic, the smaller your audience will be: builders may be gripped by a story that makes property developers take an early coffee break – and vice versa.
This is not all bad news. On the contrary, it can be seen as a big plus. Because the narrower topics will be sensationally absorbing to the handful of people who listen.
Next: What kind of audience is it? >>