Politely Provocative

I have been accused on more than one occasion of having the attention span of a gnat. I don’t think this is true. Rather, based on evidence demonstrating that people pay sustained attention for only about ten minutes, tops, I feel pretty certain that I’m completely average (yet again): I have the attention span of a normal (ho-hum) human being.

Let’s think for a minute (tops!) about what this means. Imagine that you are in a meeting and someone is presenting the results of your most recent patient-satisfaction scores, quality measures, and financial performance. If these topics interest you, and the presenter is really good (translation: in possession of great slides, a charming personality, and the ability to spin the data into an interesting story), you can focus on the presentation for about seven to 10 minutes.

If you are not all that interested in the topic, or the presenter is particularly boring (indecipherable slides, droning delivery of endless facts and figures), then you will lose interest much, much faster (as in “put needles in my eyes, please shoot me right now”). The plunge in your interest level probably looks something like this when graphed:

politely provocative

With this grim statistic in mind, what can you do to grab and hold your audience’s attention? I could offer all of the usual advice, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll encourage you to say something unexpected, even provocative. For most of us, this means moving a bit out of our comfort zone; but the stretch is worth it if you have important information to convey.

Here’s an example. A few years ago I was at a medical conference listening to talk after talk, all of them just plain boring. Not one made me sit up and take notice. And then Dr. Patch Dellinger from the University of Washington got up and made a presentation about a bariatric surgery study. I’ll paraphrase the verbal hand grenade he threw: the chances that you will be able to effectively lose weight through dieting are roughly equal to your chances that you will survive pancreatic cancer. Bariatric surgery is the only effective long-term weight-loss treatment.

Dr. Dellinger backed up this provocative statement with facts and figures — evidence in which, thanks to his stunning opener, I’d suddenly become extraordinarily interested. He had hooked me big time. So much so that later that evening, over dinner, I asked him if I had heard him correctly. Yes, he assured me, I had: your chances of losing weight and keeping it off by dieting and your chances of surviving pancreatic cancer were just about equal.

After hearing this again, I did what any rational human being would do: I ordered dessert.

Let me give you another example that I just love. A while back I was working with a hospital showing urinary tract-infection rates that, while not greater than the comparison group, were still higher than they should have been. The quality manager had tried, with the usual approaches, to get physician buy-in for a project to improve the rates, but encountered resistance at every turn. It wasn’t a big deal, the docs said: just give the patients some antibiotics, and move on.

And then a nurse in the room looked the physicians straight in the eye and said, “it isn’t a big deal unless you’re the one in the hospital with the infection.”

Pow! The docs got it. The project moved forward, and was a success.

The nurse’s comment may not have seemed like a big deal. But it was. She stretched a little, beyond statistics and reports, and said something that caused the docs to think about the situation in a different way. She was politely provocative.

“Provocative” doesn’t mean outrageous or confrontational. Rather, you can “provoke” and stimulate interest and action by simply saying something unexpected that challenges people to go in a different direction, to engage with you, to really listen to what you present to them.

Remember, seven to 10 minutes is about all you get to capture and hold your audience’s attention. Don’t be timid. Go for it. You will powerfully impart important information; your audience (and the people its members serve) will be grateful.

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