GET A GROUP’S ATTENTION
I recently spoke to a group of high school students about leadership skills. One participant asked, “When my gaming group gets together, how do I make them all quiet down so I can give announcements?”
Lucky for her (and you), there is one specific nonverbal skill set that works like magic when you need to interrupt a noisy group and get attention. As a presenter, I use this skill routinely when it’s time to bring workshop participants back to the presentation after they’ve been doing an activity together. It works any time you need to get the attention of a group, including when you need to speak up in a meeting.
This method is guaranteed to work like a charm when done correctly. I admit, that’s a big caveat. This “one” skill has three components and each part has its pitfalls. If you overdo or minimalize one step, it won’t work as well as it could. You have to find the sweet spot. But after some practice, you’ll find it 100% effective. And even when it’s not just right, it helps enormously.
To quiet a group, you need to do three things: get their attention, hold their attention, and draw them in. Here’s how.
1) Briefly get loud
Say one word or two—not a sentence or a paragraph or a phrase—at a volume that is louder than the collective volume of the group. Do not yell a whole sentence at them. In fact, it’s best if this one word doesn’t include any of the content of your message. It can be a filler word, such as, “Okay!” or “Hey!” or “Up here” or “Now…” It can be the first word of a sentence, but only the first word. Keep it short.
The trick here is to get the right volume. If you’re too loud, you’ll shock and annoy people. They will either be offended or go into fight-or-flight, and then you’ve lost them. One time when delivering a presentation to an ultra-chatty group, I started pulling my lapel mic right up to my mouth to call them back after activities. Once, I got too close. The mic POPPED and it actually hurt people’s ears. That didn’t score me any points!
That said, unless you’re in a library or dealing with a hyper-shy group, being too loud is not a common mistake. Most often, the people I coach are not loud enough. It takes some boldness to exceed the volume of a whole group, so access your inner banshee and go for it! It also helps if you time your loud interruption with a natural lull. The volume in a group doesn’t stay at one level for long. It rises and falls. If you call for attention during the lull, you can do it with less volume than you’d need when the group is going full throttle.
There is no right volume. Depending on the situation and the group, you might get attention by raising your voice only slightly. With a larger or more rambunctious group, you might have to get out the megaphone. The key is to slightly exceed the volume of the entire group.
Once you’ve gotten a big chunk of your audience’s attention, keep it with an unexpected silence. Most people don’t pause at all when trying to call a group to order. They just yell and yell and add to the collective volume and chaos in the room. If you pause, and freeze during the pause, this holds the attention of those who looked up when you got loud. They quiet down. And then others notice and look, too.
Here, the trick is to pause for the right length of time. If you pause for too long, people will go back to what they were doing. Rarely, though, is that the problem. Most people find it hard to pause at all. And when they do try it, the silence feels excruciatingly long even when it was only half a second. Let your word hang in the air.
If you just keep talking without a pause, you don’t give people a chance to realign and figure out what’s going on. Silence gives them a chance to change their focus. Get their attention with some noise, then freeze and be quiet for a moment to nonverbally signal that you have something to say.
3) Drop your voice
After you pause, continue with your message, but drop your voice down to a whisper. This forces people to be quiet so that they can hear what you’re saying. It also arouses their curiosity.
Once again, the volume “sweet spot” depends on the size of your group. In a large room, you can’t drop all the way down to a real whisper, or some people won’t be able to hear you at all. Your voice needs to be loud enough to be heard… but just barely.
More often, after pausing, people continue speaking at a normal volume. Or worse, they continue with the “getting attention” volume from the beginning. If you just keep yelling, people will tune you out. Drop your voice. Make them lean in to hear you.
Those are the three steps: briefly get loud, pause, and drop your voice. It takes some work to get each piece just right, but every time you try it, you’ll get closer and closer and you’ll see it working.
If you have something to communicate, you need to get and keep attention. Practice this skill and let your voice be heard.