My son used to ride bulls. I remember those days vividly. The whole point was to stay on the bull for 8 seconds. I can still smell the dust, hay and leather. I can hear the crowds, the bells, Garth Brooks’ music, bulls snorting and hoofs clamoring. As my son climbed into the bucking chute and lowered himself onto the bull, we could see his veins bulge and his knuckles whiten. He was knocked around the chute as he awaited the gate to be released. At this point our whole family began to sweat and go into adrenaline overload mode. The sad part was, my daughter, his little sister, never saw him actually ride the bull. She has epilepsy and this immense tension always caused her to have a seizure right before her brother burst out of the chute and into the arena. In those moments, holding a seizing child and watching your son fight to stay on a ferocious bull, 8 seconds felt like an eternity.
Today, research tells us what else can happen in a matter of 7 to 9 seconds. Depending on the generation, we have learned that we have about 8 whole seconds to make a first impression. That initial greeting is so critical because our conditioned reptilian brain makes a subconscious decision within those seconds. You may be thinking fight or flight, but it is actually a bit more complex than that. Our brain used to be wired for survival which is where fight or flight originated. Now, the complex brain of today has been conditioned to still make these involuntary determinations based on the very first experience with another person or speaker.
The reptilian brain today is still fearful, but its fears are less barbaric and animalistic. We fear boredom, extreme complexity and we fear change. All of these fears or deterrents can cause our audience to shut down, look down, and yes, pick up a smart phone for a safer or a more stimulating and manageable interaction. This is why, in any presentation, the opening is absolutely critical. Before we even open our mouths, the audience’s basal ganglia is sizing us up and making assumptions based on posture, expression, energy, build and attire. And then when we open our mouths, our words, tone and cadence are all critical to engaging an audience early on.
If you can delight and surprise first and introduce yourself and your intentions later, your audience will be much more open to participating in the journey you have planned for them. If you can make them laugh, you have given the precious gift of endorphins, and you are on your way to building a connection with your audience. How ever you decide to open your talk, just make sure it is not predictable. If you open with “hi my name is…I represent…and I’m here to talk to you about” then you will have effectively convinced your audience that they will either be bored or in opposition of your message. Novelty on the other hand, produces dopamine, and that is the chemical of focus. Remember what can happen in 8 seconds. What will you do to rope them in and keep them on the bull long after that initial 8-second ride?