As an avid theater-goer, I generally find myself lost in the text of the play, a lyric from a song, or attempting to untangle the crisscrossed plot lines… all in order to make sense of the story and thereby be able to draw a conclusion about what “it” all means. This reflective, almost meditative, state is true when experiencing any live entertainment – but it also happens when watching a movie or your favorite TV show.

After the experience, you and a friend discuss the story, your emotional reaction to it, and what it means to your daily life. Rarely did a character step forward, stop the action, and say to you, “Pay attention, this next line reveals my motivation.” Why? Would it not be easier if the lead character simply told us why they do the things they do and what it means to us as a viewer? Absolutely. But there is a certain element of cognitive fun when you’re engaged with the story and must come to understand what it means.

Interestingly enough, this happens in all types of communication, not just entertainment. That is, we have a conversation or make a presentation and we leave the audience to consider its purpose and potential next steps. In other words, we (mistakenly) expect our audience to export the meaning of our message. While this approach may work for the stage or film (where no real action is expected beyond enjoyment and perhaps recommending this show/film to others), it fails miserably in our own personal and professional lives.

We do not communicate for no reason. In fact, all of our communications are seeking not only understanding by the listener, but an action from them. So, if I never communicate to you the purpose of the conversation or the meaning of the presentation, how can I possibly expect you to take the next steps? If we don’t understand the purpose, we wander away from these seemingly “pointless” meetings and go about our day never to have that time back.

So how do you drive engagement? We should consider the following:

  1. “Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark” – Lead with A Problem
    • We communicate because we are actively attempting to solve some problem the audience has. It could be an external problem you solve for your audience or customers. Or, it could be an internal solution around organizational efficiency or customer service. In either scenario, you have been compelled to communicate a solution to an actual problem.
  2. “’Tis Your Cue” – Communicate the Meaning
    • If you have led your communication with a problem, then you will naturally begin asking, “How do I now communicate what this means to my audience?” It is the job of the communicator to explain the meaning, and you should never ask the listener to do the very difficult task of exporting a communication’s meaning.
  3. “Action is Eloquence” – Guide the Audience to Act
    • With a clean meaning presented, you can now guide your audience to the action you want them to take. After a high-energy musical number, it is not by accident that all the performers freeze on stage. They are waiting for you to take an action – Your audience is no different. They are patiently waiting for the completion of your presentation (to metaphorically applaud and) to take the action you have laid out. Don’t miss your opportunity for “applause.”

While you will now become a better audience member in every capacity, I would still not wait for that favorite character to explain why you should care about his or her plight. Rather, begin your communications with a problem, communicate the ramifications of the problem, and call the listener to act. When you follow these simple steps, spontaneous applause will be the result.

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