I'll never forget the first real job I ever had. At age sixteen, I was an usher at Roth's Seven Locks Movie Theatre in Potomac, Maryland. I was paid to watch you while you were watching your movies. I found I learned a lot about audience behavior from that experience; I saw how quickly attention could be gained or lost over the course of a movie.
Leaning on the back wall of the theater I proudly wore my red and black blazer and manned my flashlight like a pro. I could only see the back of the heads of those audience members, but they taught me plenty. When there was an intense part of the movie, no one moved a muscle. When the intensity of the movie broke, so did the attention of everyone watching. As if on cue, hundreds of people would simultaneously adjust their seating, reach for popcorn, or stretch. If the movie was a good one, it wouldn't be long before the audience members would once again be totally engaged and motionless.
The ebb and flow of the action created a rhythm, and the writer and director of each movie calculated and carefully orchestrated that rhythm they wanted you to feel. Too much intensity and you would wear those audience members out. They would grow numb to the message before them and they would lose interest. If there was too little action, you would put everyone to sleep. But the right mix of intensity and relief would thrill those in the audience and they would stay glued to their seats.
That rhythm is also a part of how we communicate. We all try to inject power and energy into the words we speak. If you try to inject that level of intensity into every word you say, it will captivate the people you are speaking to...at first. But in time, you'll fall flat. The people in the audience will become restless and irritated, and the words that once sounded exciting and melodic will morph into a shriek. Worst of all, the critical points of your message will be lost because no one will know where to find them.
The writers and directors understand what it is they want you to feel through the words and action of their movies. They know what message they want you to remember, and what songs they want you to sing on your way out. When you communicate, you are both the writer and director of your own movie. What is it that you want others to feel and remember when you speak? Once you understand the core of the message you want to get across, there are a number of ways to help others to find it:
• You can slow your voice down to draw people in.
• You can speed your voice up to hold attention.
• You can add emphasis to highlight a point.
• You can add movement to further increase attention.
• You can use a well-place visual aid to increase retention.
Each of these ideas is a good one, and the combination of ideas makes the delivery even stronger. Beware, however, because too much of any one of these ideas and you'll find the opposite of the desired effect. When you stop and think about it, it's a strange irony because it's hard to imagine that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. The key is to do a little of everything, but don't overdo any one tactic. As the saying goes...
"Emphasize everything; emphasize nothing."
Pick your spots, change up your tactics, and next time you step in front of an audience, you'll get and keep them in the palm of our hand!