Sitting in a dark auditorium in downtown San Francisco, I hold my breath as the first speaker takes the stage.
When he appears and stands to his full height under the spotlight, I silently say his name in my head and beam all my love and support in his direction.
As he expertly delivers the 3-minute story I helped him prepare for this event -- an annual fundraiser -- my heart can't help but sing with pride and pleasure!
When he reaches the end, however, it swiftly sinks.
And this basic pattern repeats, again and again, until all seven of the grantees I've coached have finished:
Sing! ... Sink.
Sing! ... Sink.
Sing! ... Sink.
And before we look at why, it's important to note that I don't share this as a criticism of the great people who put their hard work and noble intentions into the event -- but rather, as a gift to anyone in charge of future events, so that YOU might learn and benefit from this example.
With that in mind:
The reason for that sinking feeling has nothing to do with the stories, and everything to do with the framing of them.
Each talk was preceded by a 1-minute video introduction -- arguably a wise move when you want to control the flow and timing of the event and don't want to leave the framing of speakers up to the whim of an unpredictable MC.
So here's what would happen:
The lights would drop. The video would play. The speaker would deliver their powerful story. The audience would feel jazzed up about their great work and want to help!
... And then, before the applause had died down -- before the speaker had even left the stage -- the next video would start playing, introducing the next grantee.
And while it's easy to understand the logic behind this decision -- people have short attention spans, right? We need to keep up the pace if we're going to keep their attention! -- this reasoning mis-construes an important fact about human motivation, which is:
Feelings -- not logic -- are the catalysts that move people to action.
And like all catalysts, they are inherently fleeting!
If you succeed in making your audience feel something, but then don't give the feelings anywhere to go -- they will deflate just as quickly as they arose, and your audience will beat a hasty retreat back to their default comfort zone of cerebral evaluation.
If you want to get people to act -- if you want the feelings to serve a purpose -- then once you've succeeded in giving us a direct punch to the heart-guts, you need to give us a moment to sit with that feeling; to turn to the person next to us and say:
"Wow, that really hit home for me."
And then, immediately after we've acknowledged the feeling, you must invite us to DO something with it -- so we can replace the TENSION in our hearts with the SATISFACTION of having done something.
I cannot emphasize this enough.
This is what allows the audience to walk out of that theater telling ourselves the story we want to believe about what kind of people we are: good people, contributing people, concerned and compassionate citizens.
This is what it means to make your audience the hero of your story.
... But if you instead distract your audience from the emotional experience they are still processing with the need to take in new information (of the kind designed to make you feel more and different feelings) -- well then, you've lost them entirely.
They will be too burnt-out to keep caring.
And, if you're going to do the hard work of getting people to feel something in the first place -- wouldn't you rather do it in such a way, that allows your hard work to pay off?