There’s no causation here, only correlation, I’m sure: As I was coming of age, so was the radio shock jock. Nationally, this era was pioneered by a select few, but they spawned numerous copycats in probably every local U.S. market.
I remember listening to some of these shock jocks as a kid. Some of the bits were “LOL” funny, and some of them still hold up today. But, even as a kid, I remember thinking: “Where are they going to go from here?” If you’re pranking the family of your town’s mayor, convincing them that he passed away (which, if memory served, actually happened), there’s not much room for… I guess we’ll call it “growth”. In fact, you’ll never top it, and by the way, War of the Worlds was the real standard bearer for radio pranks, albeit unintentional, over 80 years ago.
The point is this: making a lasting impact on your audience is certainly not predicated on “shock value.” Naturally, most speakers don’t want to create the shock value that those jocks created back in the day. But there is a tendency to want to open “big” instead of building up to a moment of revelation or surprise that will feel earned by the audience.
Here are three ways that you can captivate an audience without resorting to shock value or “going big”:
Define (or, even better, redefine) a term or concept everyone thinks they know:
The most recent example I’ve seen comes from tech investor Ben Horowitz. He was interviewed on CBS This Morning and when asked about culture, he said, “It’s not a set of beliefs. It’s a set of actions.” Taking a well-known term and reframing it increases the likelihood that the audience will come along with you for the journey.
Open with an illustrative story:
Many of my clients have at least one story that directly impacts their current profession or point of view. Often times, the past and the present don’t have an obvious connection to one another - and that’s the key. If you’re telling a story about your childhood dog to illustrate why you believe in the democratic process, that’s going to be memorable. Anticipation is a powerful tool to have in your toolkit on stage - it intrigues, but it doesn’t shock.
Lean on a cliché… right up until you abandon it:
Clichés are still around for a reason. It’s because they are relatable truths, but by definition, they are overused. But what if you found a way to make it work for you? If you were telling a story about your experience with entrepreneurship, for example, you might say, “This journey has been a rollercoaster, full of ups and downs… except there weren’t any downs. We blew up right away, and we had to adjust for ‘extreme success’”. It’s unexpected by the audience, but when delivered correctly, it’s not jarring.
Like all art, it’s open to interpretation, but audiences appreciate fine craftsmanship, so it’s best to work with a clear vision.