A lot of our advice has focused on managing the audience’s attention. In addition to the techniques we have already mentioned, there is a simple but often neglected means to stimulate listening: varying the semantic level. When we have an idea, we can express it on 4 semantic levels:
Share an anecdote: “The last time I spoke, the entire executive staff was there, and I was especially nervous…”
An anecdote allows us to share a personal life story, either your own or someone else’s, which boosted the implementation of an idea. It gives you the opportunity to express a behavior, a thought or a feeling in a very concrete manner. This semantic level is often overlooked because is seems obvious and doesn’t highlight your expertise. But sharing your feelings rarely leaves people indifferent and often offers the opportunity to make an impact. It gives us the opportunity to make a brief aside, a preamble to a deeper reflection or a more technical discourse.
Find an analogy: “I felt like a kid at the blackboard”
An analogy is especially effective when we want to share a complex idea or trigger an emotion. If the anecdote generates empathy vis-à-vis someone’s experience, the analogy involves the audience more because they are invited to engage in a set of thoughts, memories and experiences in a new setting.
Evoke a rule: “Stress is caused by the combination of a situation, the stressor, and automatic reflexes associated with the situation, the propensity to be stressed”
This more operational level is the realm of conventions, logical procedures and links. We use it naturally when describing the operation of a mechanism or when we seek to demonstrate the merits of an idea or an argument. It is common to see entire speeches exclusively pronounced on this semantic level. This often betrays a desire, conscious or not, to assert our level of expertise at the expense of a more varied and therefore more captivating structure to our remarks.
Discuss a concept: “Stress is the expression of a basic state of instinct”
This semantic level is one of abstraction, modeling and theoretical discourse. We use it when we seek to define a word or concept. It often imposes a high level of concentration because it forces us to manipulate concepts that can be extremely abstract. In this case, varying semantic levels doesn’t only allow us to manage attention, but also to not exhaust the audience by alternating between the concrete and the conceptual.
We all have our preferred semantic level but obviously we must think about the audience first. Beware of the elitism trap. In expert round tables or philosophical conferences, it is common to have speakers that are consistently at a very high semantic level. If these modes of expression give the impression of a high level of expertise or intellectual ability, they are devastating on the attention level of the audience. It is not uncommon to have debaters who talk without replying to one another, because they’re not listening or making the effort to intervene on the semantic level of their interlocutor. In these contexts, a brilliant orator is always distinguished by his ability to vary the semantic level, using the anecdote and analogy to highlight the strength of his reasoning or relevance of his theory.