“What’s the secret to connecting with an audience?”
When Harvard Business Review put this question to Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) a few years back, his answer was as profound and applicable to delivering the news as it was to doing his Vegas magic act.
Here’s a part of what he said:
If someone is talking about their passion — whether it’s horizontal oil drilling, Spanish nurse porn, or stamp collecting — I get sucked in.
People say, “How can I make this particular idea play?” But if they’re phrasing it that way, they haven’t got a chance. It has to be “I have something I desperately want to say. How do I say it?” Then it comes down to mechanics: Are your sentences clear? Are you making eye contact?
One teacher, one time, told me a valuable thing: “No one cares about what you say. They’re looking for an excuse not to listen. So make sure they don’t have one.” And boy, that applies to everything. When you go out on stage, you’ve got two minutes to get the audience thinking “This is important” or “This is grabbing my heart.”
Penn’s advice goes right at the difference between extraordinary talent and merely competent ones. Competent talent may generally know the story and be able to read it accurately, with good energy and even some personality. It’s often easy to admire their professionalism and polish.
It’s also easy to ignore or forget what they have to say. They’re like the young artist who it’s said once played a very difficult piece for the Russian maestro, Vladimir Horowitz. “Young man,” Horowitz commented, “you played every note perfectly. Now when are you going play the music?”
Knowing a story and reading it perfectly is not connecting, any more than knowing the notes is playing the music. That thing that separates extraordinary talent from others is not how well they know the story but how much they need to tell the story. They connect when others don’t because they’re concerned with something more than the facts themselves. They’re concerned with what’s important about those facts. They know what grabs at the heart.
And so, as Penn might say, they have something they desperately need viewers to see and understand. And it’s the need that makes their delivery somehow different and sets them apart.
You can read the full interview with Penn here.