Leadership and communication skills mean nothing if no one wants to listen to you. Many knowledgeable, committed people have zero personal influence simply because they are not interesting. We have all been bored by someone to the point where we imagine ourselves on a Caribbean beach sipping a big umbrella drink and listening to metal drum music. That’s right – we will choose the sound of someone beating on harmonically modified oil drums as we sport embarrassing beverages rather than stay tuned in to information that just moments ago we thought would easily hold our attention.
On the other hand, we watch people on reality shows who are seemingly devoid of value, babbling about stuff we can’t even relate to, much less learn anything from that remotely applies to our own lives. (I won’t name names but it starts with a Kar and ends with a Dashian.) What is it that makes something we truly want to know unbearable and makes useless drivel so appealing? Is it a big personality?
I don’t know about you, but I have had to relocate on a mercifully semi-empty airplane because my seatmate had too much personality. It’s easy to say we choose entertainment over education. (If that’s true, why can’t I stop watching Antiques Roadshow?) We can’t get the education we need to forward our lives because we won’t take the time to study, but we will watch Honey Boo Boo and Swamp People until we begin to develop grammar problems! We can’t focus while at work, but we come home to watch someone do their work on TV. Recently, a very honest woman struggling to sell real estate told me she was not willing to work late because she wanted to watch a show every night about real estate gurus easily selling mansions.
Contrary to what we have been told most of our lives, it seems that we are oddly interested in things we can’t relate to very well. For instance, if you can’t sell a fixer-upper in a questionable neighborhood, then watching a show about superstar realtors selling 30,000-square-foot houses supports my theory. When it comes to shows like Hoarders, we watch and feel better knowing that our messy house is not so bad. Interestingly, though, we won’t clean our house in response; instead, we watch as someone cleans the hoarder’s house. Actually, the show makes most people decide to stay in their relationships because you are less likely to gain 100 pounds and sleep on a pile of pizza boxes if you have a roommate.
General Hospital is still on TV while PBS, which airs some of the best documentaries we’ve seen in years, struggles for funding. Great shows end because they run out of ideas after five seasons, whereas General Hospital has had a 50-year run and hasn’t changed a bit. Sure, some characters who’ve died have come back to life, and sometimes the series just switches actors in a key role, as though no one will notice. It’s just not very realistic … and that’s what we like. What family has someone in the hospital every week? If you knew that family, would you want to hang out with them?
In that same vein, science fiction and fantasy are the top movie and TV draws. From Star Warsto Game of Thrones, we can’t get enough of shockingly unrealistic concepts that try to deliver a moral message. What have I learned? Be nice to dragons and always hang out near the escape pods!
In short, we choose escape over importance, spectacle over value, reality TV over reality. Consequently, if you want to get people to listen to you, you need to start with an over-the-top story that makes others feel like they could never achieve such a lofty, unrealistic dream. Or, if it’s over the top in a negative way, it should make them glad that this mesmerizing train wreck did not happen to them. We don’t care for personal tragedy, but we will actually pay to see the misfortunes of others. That’s why your college professor who told weird and probably untrue stories had so much impact on you. It also explains why you slow down to look at accidents even when you are late for work.
Armed with this insight, what can we do to make sure that people absorb what we want them to hear?
- The most ridiculous, outlandish story you have needs to be put to good use. Points are easy; good stories are hard to come by. Take a great true story (embellishments are OK; you can even admit you’re exaggerating as you tell the story) or an untrue story you can use as metaphor and find the points you need. You can adjust the story to fit your points, but keep in mind that it requires focus. Saying “Hard work creates opportunity” is easy; getting a great story to illustrate that point is much tougher. I once heard a former IRS tax attorney talk about some intensely boring subject matter, but he used really crazy stories about agents tackling celebrities in their front yard and people trying to deduct payments made to prostitutes. I still remember his basic points about record keeping and how to make sure you’re maximizing deductions but playing by the rules. I don’t want to be tackled!
- Make sure you start with the problem or issue, then the solution, and finally why the solution is valuable. This order is important for impact. Even the worst reality show with the lowest production value is easy to follow. You can present an over-the-top problem that you solve with a straightforward solution and then a dramatic, metaphorical explanation of value. If you can be funny, be as funny as you can. (If you are not funny, don’t be.) Humor that works always gives you an advantage. We can remember a good joke we heard two years ago, but we don’t recall what we had for lunch two days ago.
- Be aware of what your audience values and believes in, even if it’s an audience of one. TV and movie companies do lots of research on this and create things that match what they know about the viewing public. If you know people who really dislike a particular sports team (that’s weird, I know, but it happens), then being over the top in a negative way grabs their attention. I spoke at an NFL event, at a pre-Super Bowl meeting attended by fans and staff of only one of the teams. There had been recent news coverage about players saying negative things about the team I was speaking to. It had gotten out of hand. I mentioned that I had a desire to fight the other team’s mascot because he was annoying – and that I was qualified to do so because I had once taken down Barney in an ugly altercation in a Toys R Us parking lot. They cheered and clapped for a full minute. Then I made my point: Sometimes the best action is restraint, followed by introspection. To win, we must keep a cool head and not be distracted by our personal resentments. I admitted to the large crowd that extreme loyalty to a football team was not my issue. I clearly have a problem with people in big furry animal suits. I trace it back to a Disney trip at age 11 when Goofy and I had it out over a funnel cake.
To ensure that we are seen as interesting, we have to be realistic about how people respond and what they respond to consistently. Being sincere, factual, relatable, relevant, and on point can never compete with a personal, colorful, funny, over-the-top, hard-to-believe story or metaphor with a good, solid, easy-to-understand solution or idea that focuses on delivering value to the listener. Here’s the proof: Whether you liked this article or it rubbed you the wrong way, you seemed to have no problem finishing it!