13 Ways To Break The Pattern During A Speech
Here’s a brief experiment: take a few moments to become aware of how the shirt you’re wearing right now feels on your shoulders.
Are you suddenly aware of the fabric pressing down on your shoulders? I know I was when, as a high school student, my psychology teacher asked our class to do the same thing. In that moment, I couldn’t think of anything but how my shirt felt—and judging from the number of classmates who suddenly began squirming in their seats, I knew I wasn’t alone.
That experiment highlights two fundamental truths about people.
First, we humans acclimate rather quickly to unchanging stimuli. Just as we normally tune out the feel of our shirt, the gentle hum of a ceiling fan, and the comforting scent of our morning coffee, we tune out speakers who become too predictable. Just think of the scientist from an earlier blog post who flipped through slide after slide in a predictable manner. His monotony led his audience to tune out—and once they were gone, his unvarying flow did nothing to get them back.
But the example of the scientist also offers us a vital clue about how to keep our audiences interested: do the opposite. Just as we evolved the capacity to tune out static, we developed a keen ability to detect change and movement in the environment. We notice things that are different—or, in the words of Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, that “break a pattern.”
Think of studying in a hushed library when your focus is abruptly diverted by a man’s loud voice cutting through the air, or driving on a deserted road when a giant tractor-trailer suddenly sneaks up behind your rear bumper. When the established “pattern” ends, we take note. And if we, as presenters, regularly break our patterns, we can go a long way toward helping our audiences remain interested and absorb our information.
Examples of breaking the pattern include:
- Introducing a new topic
- Citing a specific case study after conveying a few facts
- Shutting off your PowerPoint projector after showing a few slides
- Moving to the opposite side of the room while introducing a new point
- Stating something surprising or counterintuitive after beginning with “common sense” material
- Changing your vocal inflection: getting louder or softer, speaking faster or slower, pausing for emphasis
- Altering the tempo: spending only 90 seconds on the next point after spending 10 minutes on the previous one
- Asking for audience feedback, soliciting questions, or posing a rhetorical question
- Playing a short audio or video clip
- Demonstrating a product or showing a physical object
- Writing on a white board or drawing a picture
- Lightening the mood after sharing emotionally difficult material
- Reading a short excerpt or verbatim quote from a note card after speaking extemporaneously
Breaking the pattern is critical for maintaining your audience’s attention, but also for regaining it once people’s minds have wandered (each time you change things up, the audience will snap its attention back to you). But the question of how often you should break the pattern is a bit murkier. Researchers don’t know the exact length of an “average” person’s attention span—estimates, depending on exactly what’s being measured, range from about 8 seconds (less than that of a goldfish) to 20 minutes (TED Talks are capped at 18 minutes to take advantage of attention spans). But whatever the actual number, what’s undeniable is that attention is a finite resource.
Some public speaking experts cite the “10-minute rule,” which represents the maximum amount of time you should speak without deliberately breaking the pattern. That’s a useful guide—and there’s some research to support it—but it’s also an imperfect one: we’ve all seen speakers who lose the audience within seconds and others who keep people rapt for far longer than 10 minutes.
To make sure you break the pattern frequently enough, sketch out your entire presentation, minute by minute. Make a notation every time you plan to do something that breaks the pattern; doing so will reveal any long gaps of sameness that need to be broken up. For example, if you notice that you’re not breaking the pattern between minutes 11 and 27—a 16-minute interval—it should be a red flag to you that you’re at risk of losing the audience during that section.
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