Playing with audience perceptions of size

by Peter Watts

Size is relative to the words you use. Those words will make your subject appear either dramatically bigger, or pathetically smaller.

Rhetoric works by using word patterns. Whether you intended to do it or not, if you trip one of those patterns during a sale or a presentation, then a sizing spell kicks in and you shrink your positives or enlarge your negatives.

Here’s an example of a recent conversation I had with the receptionist of a hotel that I was checking into:

“Good evening Mr Watts. Welcome to our hotel. We want you to be very comfortable, and it is our pleasure to offer you a complimentary upgrade. We will therefore be upgrading you to one of our Executive Rooms”

Delighted, I asked what made an Executive Room special, and received the deadpan answer:

“Fruit bowl”

My sense of privilege dropped lower than a dachshund’s belly. A fruit bowl? Really? This was their idea of an upgrade?

Now when you’ve come off an international flight, and it’s too late for dinner, then a complimentary fruit bowl sent to the room is a nice touch; something fresh and healthy to snack on. The receptionist however had unwittingly shrunk this gift by presenting it at the end of a series of upwards steps:

Be comfortable…. Complimentary upgrade…..  Executive Room…….

My imagination could then take over and continue climbing those steps:

Bigger room…. King size bed…. Club Floor…..

When he dropped the sucker-punch of “fruit bowl” it had the effect of bowling me right back down to the bottom again. By comparison to where my imagination had been a few moments before, that fruit-bowl now seemed almost humorously insignificant.

This is known as anti-climax. You build, build, build the power, and then drop it back down again. The effect makes your subject appear pathetically tiny. It invokes an almighty contrast between what could have been, and what actually is!

For a more subtle way to super-size either benefits or consequences, try this approach. It’s called a Step Augmentation. It follows the same path as anti-climax but without the deliberate crash at the end.

Examples of Step Augmentation:

“We have to recruit now because finding the right person could take us days, weeks, months!”

“With this infrastructure our network can extend into new districts, new cities, new states.”

“Consider how your needs will be change one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.”

“The loss of opportunity would sad, it would be tragic, it would be heart-breaking.”

By arranging terms in a sequence of increasing strength, the audience finds themselves looking at the topic through a telescope; they put their eye to the small end and see the subject matter magnified out of the big end.

To shrink the apparent size of the subject, simply flip the telescope around. By starting with the most dramatic term and then running the sequence backwards you effectively place your audience’s eye to the big end of the telescope and have them perceive the subject radically reduced. Try looking through a toy telescope or binoculars backwards and you’ll see the effect for yourself.

When done this way, it’s called a Step Diminution. You lead your audience down the steps, instead of up them.

When building a case for something, we naturally string together little lists of adjectives and adverbs, causes and consequences, and then run them either in random pairs or groups of three. Listen to others presenting and you’ll hear how common it is.

The secret to size is to make this natural descriptive behavior into a conscious descriptive behavior. Arrange your terms from small to large if you want to enlarge your topic, and from large to small in order to shrink it.

Always be aware of which end of the telescope you’re asking your audience to look through.

For more ideas on shrinking and growing your audience’s sense of scale, check out this post: Because Size Matters

Feeling horny. Reflections on questions inspired by a Middle East taxi

by Peter Watts

Asking your audience a question can cue them back into your presentation, but if the audience aren’t expecting it, a silent collision can result.

I’ve just had a similar near-death experience here in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, only it wasn’t in front of an audience, it was in the back of a rush-hour cab where my driver was using his horn the way that a regular driver might use their turn-signal:

Beep Beep….. I might be turning right

Beep Beep….. I might be turning left

Beep Beep….. I’m not turning at all, but there’s a side-street coming up, so what the heck

Beep Beep….. There’s a large SUV hurtling straight towards me down this dusty side-street and I’m going to play chicken with it, just so long as the British guy in the back doesn’t attempt to leap from the cab

Beep Beep….. I’ve just put on the central locking, so take note British guy: Fear of imminent and messy death is no justification for trying to avoid the fare by jumping out of a moving vehicle

The guy spoke fluent horn and all the other road-users seemed to understand it. He had a Old Testament ability to keep on miraculously parting the traffic, and once I came up out of the airline brace position, I realized that there was a definite schema to all the tooting; a schema that can be applied to asking your audience a question.

He was using the horn to warn other vehicles that he was about to come zipping around them, straight between them, or in the case of that jeep in the side-street, straight at them!

He didn’t just spring the impending collision, he pre-announced it so they could get out of the way. It was fair warning that he was about to do something nuts!

In presentations, the same skill is useful whenever you are about to spring something nuts on your audience, such as a question.

There’s several reasons presenters put questions to the audience:

  • It shows that you are confident
  • It shows that you want a two-way communication
  • It can build rapport
  • It can win you thinking time
  • It can be used to re-focus people’s attention onto a key point

It’s a valuable tool, but the downside is that many presenters have had the experience of asking an audience question only to be greeted by a puzzled silence.

The silence isn’t caused by the audience being unable to answer your question. It’s caused by the fact that they weren’t expecting a question.

Even the most attentive audience members don’t listen continuously. They tune in and out, and at any given moment, no matter how brilliant a speaker you are, a chunk of those folks are momentarily contemplating other things. When you unexpectedly hit them with a question, the people who had temporarily tuned-out will instinctively glance nervously at the folks to either side of them, and as that ripple of uncertainty spreads, the audience decide that silence is the best option.

From an early morning rush-hour perspective, my cabbie had this completely figured out. He was using the horn to cue other drivers into the fact that he was about to do something unexpected; like drive straight at them! They therefore needed to be paying attention and ready to react.

Your audience don’t expect a question to come straight at them. They too therefore need to be paying attention and ready to react.

Your Beep-Beep will take the form of a simple statement.

Pause for a moment, and then say: “I have a question for you…..”

Now pause again, and look at the audience. You will see people visibly sit forward as they tune into you. Every ear in the house becomes focussed. Ask your question now and you’re much more likely to get an answer.

Simply because everybody heard you.

When you’re about to do something crazy unexpected, like ask a question, use the horn.

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