(By Bruce Kasanof)
“The larger your audience, the more vital it is that you be clear. If you are mass marketing a product or conducting a Kickstarter campaign, clarity is vitally important.“
My Theory of Seven says that anytime you have to communicate with a large group of people, you should do so as though everyone is seven years old. This doesn’t mean talking down to people; it means being so interesting, clear and simple that you hold their attention.
The Theory of Seven works in marketing, selling, speaking, education, and management.
We’ve all suffered through the speaker who drones on and on for an hour, assuming that adults have an infinite ability to pay attention. In reality, you probably started daydreaming before the guy finished thanking his host, colleagues, mentors, former teachers and long-lost relatives.
On winter weekends, I coach seven-year-olds at Stratton Mountain. There’s an art to spending a day taking a half-dozen kids down expert slopes, and it has little to do with skiing; it has to do with attention. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Be clear about your priorities: Before our first run every day, I ask my kids the same question. “What’s the most dangerous thing on the mountain?” They know the answer. “People!” they shout, and I remind them they have to look out for other people, most of whom are four times their size. Then I ask, “What’s the second most dangerous thing on the mountain?”
“Trees!” they shout.
“Why are trees slightly less dangerous then people?”
“Because trees don’t move and people do!”
I do this every single day, because safety is my absolute priority. You want a tough audience? Try getting seven-year-olds to focus on safety. It takes incessant repetition, and a bit of humor to grab their attention.
The larger your audience, the more vital it is that you be clear. If you are mass marketing a product or conducting a Kickstarter campaign, clarity is vitally important.
Be clear about what’s next: Long-term planning for a seven-year old means getting a drink after he finishes his brownie. Kids that young only want to know one thing: what’s next? “Tomorrow” is a vague concept at best. “Next week” is the equivalent of never in a million years.
“Buy one, get one free” is the adult version of what’s next. So is, “If you give me your full attention for five minutes, I can wrap this up early and we can beat the rush to the bar.”
Unfortunately, much of what happens in business is vague and confusing. It’s unclear what will happen next, because no one has figured it out yet. As a result, people ask you to do so many things that don’t make sense and that won’t make a difference.
If you want people to act, be 100% clear about what will happen next.
Don’t be intellectual: Even the best seven-year-old skiers tend to have the same glaring weakness: when they do a fast “skating” stop, they bend too much at the waist and drop their heads down. If you try to explain why this shifts their weight in all the wrong directions, you are wasting your breath.
Instead, I say this. “You must love your toes, because every time you stop, you stare at your toes. You must have the most beautiful toes in the world. Your toes are so beautiful, it is impossible for you to stop without looking at your toes.”
The kids stop looking at their toes.
If you are talking one-on-one to an intelligent adult, by all means be intellectual. But the larger your audience, the less room there is to be intellectual. Put ten people in a room, and you’ll lose somebody with this approach. Make a video that 10,000 people need to understand, and you’d better be utterly simplistic. If you don’t believe me, go to Youtube and read the comments; it looks like seven-year-olds wrote them.
Don’t assume that others are idiots: Some of my kids may turn out to be nuclear physicists. They are young, not stupid. Treat your audience with respect. At the same time, you better assume they have ultra-short attention spans and that they crave memorable experiences. Be interesting, not idiotic.
Keep things moving: Speaking experts love to preach “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them it, then tell them what you told them”. I despise this advice, because it is so predictable and deadly boring.
A much better strategy is to keep things moving at such a nice pace that there is always something interesting and useful happening. We ski down the same mountain day after day. It is not that tall, and not that steep. But I know 1,000 ways to ski it, and I know that boredom is a disease I must chase out of town.
Be creative, unpredictable, passionate, supportive, kind and interested. Make every moment so interesting that no one wants to go to the bathroom, in case they miss something good. (But also build in plenty of bathroom breaks; trust me, I learned this the hard way.)
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