By Bill McGowan


Your listener is capable of absorbing 400 words per minute, yet you are capable of voicing only 125. So what does the human brain do when it is not challenged to its full information-processing potential? It wanders far off….   Only about 20 percent of what we say makes a lasting impact…. Ten years ago, the average person could easily pay close attention for roughly twelve minutes. Now five minutes is more realistic….  As attention deficits grow, the techniques we use to keep people’s attention need to be more and more effective.


  • The BACKSPACE Button Pressers: The first way things come out of your mouth is usually the best. Resist the urge to self-edit to make the less-vital information 100 percent precise.
  • The Minutiae Lovers:  Consumers don’t want to know about the process of how something came into existence. What they want to know is: How will this product change my life? How will it help me?
  • The Expounders: Rather than making a point quickly and then moving on, an Expounder mentions the same point over and over again.
  • The Cliché Champs:Most people abuse clichés at some point, but athletes, for some reason, rely on them almost exclusively.


  • The Headline Principle: Get attention by starting with your best material, especially a grabbing, thought-provoking line that makes listeners think, I want to know more.
  • The Scorsese Principle:Hold attention with visual images that illustrate a story…. Through your words, craft stories that are so engaging that the listener is hanging on every detail. Direct the film that plays in your listener’s mind.
  • The Pasta-Sauce Principle:Cure boredom by boiling down your message, making it as rich and brief as possible. When in doubt, cut more out. If people want more, they’ll ask for seconds.
  • The No-Tailgating Principle:The speed with which you talk should be directly proportional to how certain you are about the next sentence coming out of your mouth… The more certain you are, the more briskly you can choose to speak. But if you’re prone to saying the first thing that pops into your head, a slower pace with strategic pausing is a sure way to prevent your mouth from tailgating your brain.
  • The Conviction Principle:Convey certainty with words, eye contact, posture, and tone.
  • The Curiosity Principle:  The best interviewers earn trust by displaying genuine interest, as if there is nowhere else they’d rather be. They demonstrate this by maintaining an engaged facial expression.
  • The Draper Principle: The best way to stay on point is to make sure the flow and focus of the discussion plays to your strengths. If it strays elsewhere, away from an area in which you can shine, transition it back. It’s the ole Don Draper adage, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”


  • Focus on one principle and one aspect of a principle at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to perfectly apply every piece of advice at once.
  • As you learn about each principle, study those around you. Watch television news segments with a more critical eye, and pay close attention to how speakers hold and lose your attention. See if you can pinpoint where and when various speakers use a principle to hold attention.  Study yourself [via video].


The first thirty seconds of any conversation or presentation are like the last two minutes of a football game. This is when victory or defeat is determined, the period of time when your audience is deciding whether you are interesting enough for them to continue paying attention.


  • Agenda Setting:The most common mistake I hear throughout all corporate America is the ubiquitous and tedious agenda-setting start
  • Clock Watching:Similar to agenda setting, clock watching lets the listener know just how long you’ll be talking. This is a mistake for all the reasons I mentioned under agenda setting and more.
  • Gratuitous Gratitude:Gratitude has a place, but don’t spend the first full minute of your remarks thanking a long laundry list of people.
  • The Buried Lead:Nearly all presentations could be drastically improved with one quick and simple edit: lopping off the first two paragraphs. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how engaging an abrupt start can be.
  • “I’m So Excited, and I Just Can’t Hide It!”: Excited has become the most overused word in the speaking world, and most people say, “I’m so excited to be here” in a tone of voice that conveys anything but.
  • Falling Flat with Stand-Up:It doesn’t matter whether it’s Ricky Gervais or Jon Stewart—none of those guys ever tries out new material live on stage, and you shouldn’t either.
  • Your Conformity Zone:As a general rule, if everyone else is doing it, you don’t want to do it. Starting off a presentation or conversation the way everyone else starts them makes your listeners think, I’ve heard this a million times.
  • Apology:You never want to apologize to any audience, thus planting the notion that people are going to be counting the minutes until you’re done.


Good journalists put their most compelling material in the first paragraph, known as the lead. This is the sentence or paragraph that grabs the readers or viewers, enticing them to want more. An effective lead is often surprising—even counterintuitive. It makes the reader think, What’s this about? I want to know more…. Good teases generally have three characteristics:

  1. Short. Convey it quickly, in just a line or two. 
  2. Suspenseful. Include an element of intrigue. 
  3. Surprising. Make your tease the opposite of a cliché, something that makes your listeners think,This is new. I’ve never heard this before.


Simply put, your headline is your best material. It’s the lines that come after “You’ll never believe this!” and “Oh, do I have a story for you!” and “Did you know that . . . ?”


If storytelling is not an innate talent, then for the time being, let’s think of it as having a certain formula.

  • The Setup: Resist the urge to forecast or signpost. I have heard many presentations ruined by the speaker saying, “To illustrate this point, I’d like to share with you an anecdote.”
    • The Build: Your build sets the scene, introduces key characters, and hints at some tension or conflict to be resolved…. Make the build collapsible…. No matter how long or short your build, you want it to create a sense of anticipation. Toward the end of the build, tease that the reveal is coming… A good tease might simply be: “And then she did something totally out of character.” “And then something totally unexpected happened.” “And then she said something that won over everyone in the room.”
    • The Reveal: This is the anecdotal equivalent of a joke’s punch line. It’s the payoff or the reward to your listener for staying attentive through the buildup.
    • The Exit: Once you deliver the reveal, let it sit there for a beat or two.

Once you know the setup, build, reveal, and exit for your story, it’s time to add some Scorsese-like attention to detail.  Practice the art of the analogy. Consider the following: We’ve improved our efficiency 30 percent—that’s like Michael Phelps shaving a minute off his swimming time in the 400-meter… or:  Every year, fifty-six thousand women die from heart disease. Think of how many seats there are in the average baseball stadium. The victims of this disease would fill those stadiums beyond capacity.



  • Develop Decisive Starts and Finishes: Know your opening—the first sixty to ninety seconds of content that will come out of your mouth—and have it down cold.   The same holds true for your close. It should be a definitive destination you’re driving to with a sense of purpose. Make it firm and give it a little punch. The middle of your presentation, however, should be expandable or collapsible, so it can grow or shrink, depending on time constraints and how your audience is receiving it.  If you’re ever called upon to do the same sort of on-the-spot reduction, do the following:
    • Maintain your original headline, whether it be a story, startling statement, or unusual statistic. You’ve practiced this. Don’t mess with it.
    • Slice from the middle. For instance, if the middle of your talk has five points, cut out points two and three. 
    • Now you’ll need some segues. Think about ways to conversationally connect point one to point four.
    • Then make sure the newer, shorter talk still builds to the same ending that you’ve practiced.
    • Sever Your Emotional Ties to the Content:  Don’t fall so deeply in love with your own content that you can’t see that some of it is excess. I guarantee that your audience will not miss all the elements that were in the original version… Use the Headline Principle Get to your point immediately. Don’t slowly build up to it.
    • Practice, Practice, Practice: Time yourself, continually shrinking your delivery until you’ve got your message boiled down to its most flavorful essence.
    • Always Leave Them Wanting More: Don’t succumb to the overused technique of recapping or summarizing everything you just said.


  • Delivering a Speech: Attention begins wavering eighteen minutes into a lecture. Usually attention drops off even sooner, with people losing their focus just five minutes in, tuning in and tuning back out frequently afterward. As a result, time your message so it stays within the eighteen-minute limit.
  • Answering a Question: Panel participation is not football: the player with the longest time of possession doesn’t necessarily win. Follow the Headline Principle and devise a provocative and punchy statement for each of the topic areas the moderator will raise.
  • Pitching a New Client: The magic ratio here is roughly three to one. The amount of time you dedicate to listening to your clients and discussing their challenges should be three times what you spend talking about yourself…. The key strategy here is to play a match game. Identify what the new client needs most to achieve his or her goals. Then find a successful case study to show you’ve provided something similar. The extent of your pitch could be merely, “A few months ago, we helped one of our clients through a situation very similar to what you’re going through. Fortunately, the issue is resolved and they’re back on track. So if you ever want us to give you a hand with that, just shout. It’s something we’re very familiar with.”  


Many people try to maintain an uninterrupted stream of sound coming from their mouths, worrying that clients, colleagues, and supervisors will interpret the slightest pause as a sign of uncertainty. And let’s face it, most of us are just plain uncomfortable with the whole notion of silence. As a result, we talk quickly and nonstop, especially when trying to keep the floor, seem more energetic, or win an argument. We end up accomplishing the opposite.


  • Hold Attention: Your listener craves a discernible structure to what you’re telling them, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. When the ear registers one steady, unbroken stream of chatter, it gets overwhelmed and gives up.
  • Exude Confidence: Confident people characteristically take things slowly, firm in their belief that there’s no need to rush because every single word they say matters.
  • Part with Your Verbal Eraser: A slower pace makes you less likely to resort to what I call verbal backspacing, saying things like, “Oh, I didn’t really mean to say that. What I meant to say was this.”
  • Seem More Engaged: Whenever you are having a conversation, your mind should be working on parallel tracks: first and foremost, listening with genuine interest to the other person and, second, thinking what stories from your own personal experience meld nicely with the subject at hand.


  • Mix Up Your Pace:Feel the freedom to briskly deliver thoughts that are quite familiar to you (ones you’ve said repeatedly to others) and then slow down to drive home your most important points or content that is less familiar to you.
  • Talk Cleanly:  The idea is to eliminate all the obscure jargon, the filler, the showoff vocabulary, and the complex, flowery, verbose sentence structure. Keeping it simple, straightforward, and clean (and delivering it at a moderate pace) gives your brain enough time to sort out the next thought, allowing you to progress from one idea to the next in an orderly, focused, and persuasive manner.
  • When in Doubt, Stop Talking:The more uncertain you are about your next words, the more slowly you should speak, even coming to a dead stop if needed.
  • Focus on What You Want to Say, Not on What You Think the Audience Is Thinking:Many people pay too much attention to how others perceive them, and this puts too much power in the hands of the listener and not enough in the head of the speaker.
  • Listen More, Talk Less:Listening is one of the most effective compliments we have to offer. It validates others and makes them feel supported, and it also gives us a chance to thoughtfully prepare what we want to say.


When you speak, you want to sound filled with relentless conviction, exuding enthusiasm for the value of the information you’re sharing. Your words, eye movement, posture, pitch, and tone of voice must convey certainty…. Just because you may be starting in stage one doesn’t mean your audience has to know that. The trick is to simulate your sense of enjoyment until you can actually experience it for real.

Watering down your conviction, though, signals to your listener, This is a weak idea: “Kind of”,  “Sort of”, “I Think…”,  “You May Not Like This, but…”, “Let Me Just Quickly…”, “I’ll Only Take Up Two Minutes of Your Time”

HOW TO STAND WITH CONVICTION: Our posture affects more than the way others perceive us…. stand with confidence, do what your mother always told you: stand up straight. Use this head-to-toe guide. 

  • Shoulders: 
    DO Pull them back to open the chest. 
    DON’T Shrug them toward your ears. 
  • Arms:
    DO Create a ninety-degree angle between your forearms and upper arms.  Keep them out in front of you, with your arms and hands soft and relaxed. This allows you to easily gesture if needed. There’s never a long distance for them to travel, so your gestures don’t become distracting.
  • Hands: 
    DO Gesture to make a point, but don’t keep your hands in constant motion or make the same gesture repeatedly. Also, it’s best to keep them within the frame of your body instead of flailing them to the sides, where they can be distracting. When you are not using your hands, bring them together right around where your belt buckle would be. Allow your fingers to lightly touch, almost as if the fingers of your right hand are gently touching a ring on your left ring finger. Your palms should be facing in toward you with the backs of your hands facing your audience. 
    DON’T Place your hands anywhere that makes your listeners think, “What is that person doing with her hands?”
  • Feet:
    DO Shift your weight forward slightly onto the balls of your feet so you can feel a slight pressure in your toes. This will keep your weight forward so you are learning toward your audience.
    DON’T Get back on your heels. This position is not only more passive, it also makes it all too easy for you to get fidgety feet.

FIVE POSITIONS OF DOUBT: Have you ever watched what speakers do with their hands? If so, you probably weren’t paying much attention to what they were saying. That’s just the point… avoid these five hand and arm positions.

  • Behind Your Back: Though the pose works for speed skaters, it’s too passive and apologetic for public speakers. It sends a visual signal that you are undeserving of people’s attention.
  • Crossed over Your Chest: Also known as the Nikita Khrushchev pose, this comes across as defiant and judgmental, closes you off from your audience, and makes you seem less accessible.
  • In Your Pockets:
  • On Your Hips: It’s best to leave this pose to superheroes sporting tights and capes. Some people think that this position makes them appear authoritative and confident, but it’s usually perceived as arrogant.
  • At Your Sides: We all look uncomfortable with our arms just dangling by our sides. The weight of the arms gives a little droop to the shoulders. It presents a problem for gesticulating, too.


  • Don’t Look Up to Others: Before you sit down, make sure your chair (if it’s adjustable) is set to its maximum height.
  • Belly Up to the Bar: If your shoulder blades are resting against the back of the chair, you’re sitting back too far. At most, only the lowest part of your back should touch the vertical cushion….Your stomach should come right up to the edge of the table, but if your shoulders are over the table, you’re slouching. Sit up straight from the base of your spine. You should feel a little pinch in the small of your back so you can sit both forward and straight up.
  • Get Your Elbows on the Table: If you are at a conference table or even a business lunch, keep your hands above the table.
  • Get a Leg Up: Cross them at the ankle and tuck them underneath the chair, perhaps even resting on the swivel base of the chair rather than the floor.


The key ingredient that makes a conversation truly great is curiosity…. Great conversationalists are seldom the raconteurs holding court in front of a group of adoring fans. Instead, they’re the ones who are as interested as they are interesting. They pay attention to what you have to say and are intrigued to want to know more. And they wear this engagement not on their sleeves but on their faces, signaling through their expressiveness their delight in the give-and-take of such social interactions.


In all the seasons Mad Men has been on the air, one Draper mantra has risen above all others: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

  • Get Inside Your Interviewer’s Head:Before heading into any Pitch-Perfect situation, think about the types of questions and topics you might encounter. What will others likely ask you? What material might your listeners want to know about? What is most likely to come up? You may not be able to prepare for every single question someone may lob in your direction, but you’ll probably come close.
  • Anticipate the Question:To get a jump on where the question will go, pay close attention to the very beginning of what someone says. Before someone ever asks you a question, she or he gives you plenty of contextual cues that set up that question. By taking your cues from the first few words rather than the last few, you’ll figure out the direction of the conversation early. This will give you time to think of your response long before you’re asked, “What do you think about that?”
  • Line Up the Pitch-Perfect Triumvirate:When you develop this new skill of listening to the question with heightened attention to the first sentence or so, you will find that you can identify the topic of the question much earlier. This will allow you valuable time to answer three key questions: 1.  What’s my point? 2.  How will I illustrate it (an example, a story, or data)? 3.  What are the first five words out of my mouth?