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Want to grab their attention? Say less, show more.

Posted by Paul Hellman  March 2, 2012 11:00 AM

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It's 6 a.m. and Mika looks exasperated.

She co-hosts Morning Joe, a talk show on MSNBC. This morning, Joe, the other co-host, plus assorted guests, are busy eating junk cereal.

I'm on an elliptical machine in my basement, working out and watching all this in a desperate attempt to forget I'm working out.

Usually, Mika and Joe spar about politics. But today they're arguing about Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, and Cap'n Crunch.

Mika finally takes all the cereal boxes and dumps them in the trash, at which point Joe says something like, "Don't think I won't take the cereal out of there and eat it."

Why is this so entertaining? I wonder.

Here's one reason: props. Those cereal boxes grab us.

Remember show & tell? Props let you show more, tell less.

When you say, Junk food is good (or bad), that's telling. When you eat Frosted Flakes (or dump them), that's showing.

Showing is visual. Like watching TV, it steals your attention.

You temporarily forget that it's 6 a.m., that you're on an elliptical, and that you'd rather be sleeping, or eating vast quantities of Froot Loops.

That's the problem with most business info: it's abstract and hard to see—even harder to eat, or digest.

(True, you can see PowerPoint slides, but they have their own complications.)

Props solve that problem.

Imagine you're giving a presentation about a predicament that confronts every single organization: different groups/departments don't get each other.

I once coached an executive for a similar presentation.

The exec faced his audience and—without saying a word—took a few water bottles and placed each one on a different table in the room.

No one knew what he was up to; everyone paid attention.

Then he said, "This is the way we work—in silos." He talked about that for a while.

Note: With props, you don't need to be literal. A water bottle, for example, can be anything, even an abstract idea like working in silos.

At the end, he retrieved the bottles and poured all the water into one pitcher. "Break down the barriers," he said.

Tip #1: Break down the barriers that block attention. Try props.

Tip #2: For cereal, try Kashi. But don't eat it, or anything else, in front of your audience. Generally, no one wants to see that.

© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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