Presenters share a common delusion — because we are so passionate about our subject, we tend to think our audience is paying much more attention than they actually are. If we knew how little our learners are focussing on what we are saying much of the time, it would shock us. We can’t read their minds yet, but we can learn from psychological models about attention, interest and emotion to inform how we engage our audience.
“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”
Antonio Damasio (neuroscientist)
We all have a bouncer inside our brain
The most valuable function of our brain is its incredible ability to ignore everything which is not important to us at that time. Think of the deluge of stimuli and memories which surround us each waking moment — all competing for our scarce attention.
Our survival depends on this information flood entering our unconsciousness so that the security guard inside our brain can decide which few signals, from the noise, should make it into our consciousness. Without this filter, we couldn’t operate or make decisions. The secrets to engaging your audience lie in understanding how these discriminating gatekeepers think.
What is a hook?
Researchers often distinguish interest as falling into one of two categories:
- individual interests are those narrow, but enduring, interests which are specific to a person (e.g. baking, aircraft, golf); and
- situational interests are features of the environment or situation which are short-term, but are universally interesting to everyone (e.g. eating, emotions, other people).
How temporary situational interests can be developed into long-term individual interests is still the holy grail of interest research. However, as informal educators, giving a presentation to a group of strangers, we usually have to rely on exploiting their situational interests.
In the engagement hooks toolkit model used throughout this book, I use the term hook to refer to any stimulus that uses the situational interests of our learners to provoke their involuntary attention. These cues will instinctively attract the focus of almost everyone regardless of their individual interests (e.g. novelty, fascinating facts, suspenseful delays, explosions).
How to hook their bouncers
Nothing gets past the bouncers who guard the precious consciousness of your audience without it being tagged as being immediately interesting to them or directly relevant to their survival.
One way of approaching how to engage an audience in a given topic is to divide all the knowledge you possess at that point in your life into three categories — what you know about the topic; your understanding of the situational (or universal) interests of the audience; and then everything else you know.
When working with voluntary audiences, your success depends crucially on how well you understand their common interests — these are the source for your hooks, which you use to get them interested in the topic. As you gain experience, your hook antennae will develop and you’ll get better at judging what will grab your audience. This is a vital skill for any informal educator.
The overlap between their existing concerns and the topic will obviously vary greatly depending on the subject. However, the parts of the topic which fall outside their situational interests are not boring in themselves — they are just not immediately appealing to your learners without you providing more context.
The power of emotional hooks
As a child performing magic, my greatest delight was in being able to provoke a range of emotions in my audience. As an educator, one of my driving motivations is for learners to experience the same emotional reactions to a topic that I have felt.
Emotions provoke the involuntary attention of the audience and are one of the most powerful sources of situational interest. Audiences are also extremely susceptible to virally spreading their feelings. All forms of entertainment create strong and varied emotions in the audience, e.g. films, stand-up gigs, music concerts, plays.
“Someday, we won’t have to make a movie. We’ll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theatre.”
Alfred Hitchcock (director)
The bouncers in the brains of your audience let emotions straight through to their consciousnesses. They wave them past without a question. But when I talk about eliciting “emotions” as an educator, I don’t necessarily mean provoking tears, sentimentality or controversy. These responses are what people often associate with something being “emotional”. Instead, I mean a rich gamut of emotions, e.g. curiosity, amusement, anticipation, happiness, wonder, awe, surprise, joy of understanding, shock, confusion, mild fear, etc.
I often ask the educators I train to think of a strong memory of learning from their school days. Every recollection I’ve heard has involved a potent emotion. Feelings play a vital, but often neglected, role in the learning process. The emotions learners experience have been shown by researchers to have a powerful impact on attention, motivation, interest, memory and the learner-educator relationship. However, extreme feelings can overpower your key learning points, so educators tend to create moderate emotional responses in their presentations.
In the past, we’ve artificially separated thinking and emotions in our psychological models to help us cope with the complexity of our brains. But neuroscientists have found that emotional engagement and understanding are inextricably bound up. This is most easily demonstrated with that exhilarating state when you realise you’ve just learnt something — the penny-dropping moment. Is this joy of discovery an emotion or a thought? It’s both. Your new understanding involves thoughts, or cognition, but it also brings happiness and pride when you appreciate your break-through. So, don’t exploit emotional hooks as an educator solely to seize the attention of your audience or to encourage them to enjoy the subject. Elicit emotions because this will also help them understand and remember your content.
“They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Carl W. Buehner (church leader)
Position hooks throughout the presentation
When many educators think of a hook, they imagine the strong activity that immediately grabs their learners from the start of the presentation. Powerful openers are important, but the problem with this structure is that, no matter how effective, any hook will decay in its impact after delivery.
When I use the term “hook”, I’m referring to the engagement devices, large and small, short and long, which I strategically place throughout a presentation. As a mental image for this model, think of the density of hooks in a strip of hook and loop fastener, rather than a fishing hook. Short hooks can last as little as a fraction of a second, e.g. a momentary delay before you reveal an answer. Yet, some long hooks can span most of a presentation, e.g. telling a story which creates suspense about the final resolution, where all the pieces of the puzzle finally come together.
Our presentations are made up of self-contained routines (2.1) — these are modular units that consist of an activity or activities which make a coherent whole. So, in the context of a 3-minute routine, such as a science demonstration, I would typically use 2-3 large hooks and about 20-30 small hooks. If this seems a lot, think about all those small cues you use as a presenter to keep their attention. Many of these hooks may, by this stage, have become unconscious because you use them so automatically.
This approach develops a vigilance effect — they pay attention in order to spot the next rewarding emotional hook. With disengaged audiences, the more visible and audible the response of the first spectators to react, the better. This triggers the fear-of-missing-out instinct in the crowd and stimulates them to stay alert in future.
In the engagement hooks toolkit, I call hooks that come from the overlap between the existing universal interests of the audience and the topic, internal hooks. Being able to find and bring out the intrinsic interest within your content is essential for any informal educator.
These are some examples of internal hooks:
- eliciting amazement at a fascinating fact;
- revealing your fascination with a topic you are communicating;
- the surprise provoked by a counter-intuitive science demo;
- sharing a story of the intrigue and plotting that took place amongst some famous historical figures;
- the suspenseful delay that builds up naturally as you wait for a chemical reaction in a demo to take place;
- showing the ingenious way in which some animals protect themselves using funny video clips.
In contrast, external hooks come from outside the topic being presented. These are added to make the learner’s experience more interesting in the short-term, by supporting your content and in the hope they’ll attend long enough to begin to discover interest within the subject.
Most of the delivery techniques in this toolkit can be considered external hooks, for example:
- triggering an audience countdown to generate more anticipation and excitement before a dramatic stunt;
- making deliberate mistakes to increase the apparent spontaneity of the presentation and prompt suggestions from the crowd;
- using a game show quiz format to engage students in a topic they might otherwise, initially, find abstract and dry;
- increasing your likeability so that the audience is more likely to find the emotions you express about your subject contagious;
- getting the audience to pick a teacher to come up to help you with a potentially dangerous demo;
- exploiting the rule of three (7.3) to create a laugh for the unexpected third item you add to a list of points you are making.
These kinds of hooks are powerful, but they need to be used with care. Relying on too many external devices, or making them too strong, or using them in the wrong place with respect to the content of the routine can harm rather than support your message. For example, this can result in:
- cognitive damage — the external hook can shift the focus of the audience away from your content so that they don’t understand or remember your messages as well (e.g. sharing a gripping self-disclosure story at the wrong moment).
- affective damage — if you use too many overt external hooks, your learners are likely to think that your topic is so boring, you felt you had to resort to adding external inducements to create excitement (e.g. using too many external humour hooks). This is utterly counterproductive to your goal of developing their interest in your subject.
This potential harm can be reduced by working hard to put your content “on the plotline”. This is a concept used in educational TV programmes where the writers strive to embed the educational content naturally into the driving storyline of the show (which is usually an external hook). Therefore, viewers are motivated to try to understand the content in order to engage fully with the rewarding story, e.g. embedding mathematical clues as part of the narrative of a detective mystery.
A classic mistake sometimes seen in poor science demo shows is the jarring transition between the enjoyable action of the demo and the laboured, mandatory explanation. In the most cliched version of this format, the explanation is preceded by a clunky phrase like, “And now for the science bit.” Effective educators spend time thinking about how they can weave the learning concepts into the plot and action of their presentation routines in such a way that this doesn’t appear forced or clumsy.
Internal versus external hooks
This book focuses on how to deliver interactive presentations in general, rather than on how to write a presentation for a particular topic. So, inevitably, it will contain many external hooks. This should not, however, be taken as a recommendation to use external hooks instead of internal hooks.
In fact, it’s not a question of using either internal hooks or external hooks. In the demanding settings in which you have to present ideas to voluntary audiences, you need both types of hook to maintain the attention of the group. Your challenge lies in how you blend them together in a considered way that best supports your content and your purpose.