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Monday, December 2, 2013

May I have your Attention, Please?

[Also available as a podcast]

You know the drill - anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airline has heard this announcement from the flight attendant, usually followed by a safety briefing video and a demonstration by the crew. 

Most of us briefly look up, see the flight attendant standing there, snug our seat-belt, glance up above our heads, and resume reading - or listening to music, whatever. Most of us ignore the actual briefing if we have flown more than a few times. Even the comment "you may have flown before, but this aircraft may be different than what you are used to, so please follow along with this safety briefing" is unlikely to gain more than a few curious glances. If the safety message is only a video, there may be even fewer people paying attention.

We have become so used to distractions and the constant babble of noise around us in our daily lives, we learn to tune it out - and that can sometimes be a good thing. But how do you get - and hold - someone's attention, particularly if the message you have to share is really important?

On aircraft, different techniques have been used over the years to try to gain - and hold - your attention when announcements are made, with varying degrees of success. Humorous flight attendants are popular, but what about the safety videos?

Some of the most effective have been produced by Air New Zealand, who developed a series of safety videos that actually get you watching - and engaged. They also change the videos regularly, so you are also less likely to be "ho-hum" when you get settled in for your flight. Passengers now look forward to the safety videos - imagine that! Nude flight attendants with paint-on uniforms, anyone? You can be sure everybody paid attention to that safety video!

"That's nice for the airlines", you say. "But
how can we get - and keep - someone's attention?"

One tactic is to hook them with the unexpected - and then engage them in the message, and keep them interested until you are finished.

The Unexpected


Well, perhaps it is not a great idea to literally start with a bang (especially on an airplane), but you need to do something to begin to hook their attention away from their smartphones at the beginning of your message or presentation. Something out of the ordinary can work quite well, if you don't overdo it.

Many years ago,well before the clever Air NZ videos, I was on an aircraft that most definitely held my undivided - and disconcerted - attention.

I was leaving New Delhi, en route to Singapore. My first time flying on Aeroflot - the Russian airline. I was on an Illyushian II-86, a large single-level wide-body aircraft with the same capacity as a Boeing 747-400. It held close to 350 people, but that day it had less than 100 passengers. Plenty of room for everyone to stretch out, which was nice for a long flight.

Illyushian II-86. Attribution: Jean-Pierre Tabone Adami (2002)

They closed the cabin doors, and a flight attendant rattled off a long spiel in Russian. They then switched to English, and I casually began to half-listen.

"We have now turned on the fasten seat belt signs. Please make sure to have your seat belt fastened at all times when you are in your seat. Your life vest is located in a pouch under your seat. In the event of an emergency..." the attendant droned on with the rest of the standard safety briefing. 

There was just one problem.

There was no seat belt sign. In fact, there were was a clear absence of "no smoking" signs as well as seat-belt signs. There were no signs at all - in any language - except the glowing "Exit" sign in the aisle beside me.

Get them Engaged

Once you have their attention, give them something to think about. If you lapse into the mundane and familiar, you will begin to lose your audience. Keep it interesting - and keep a few surprises up your sleeve in case you need to re-hook them.

I looked all around the cabin, trying to see if there were any signs, any at all - aside from "Exit". I looked back to my left. Ahhh, there was one more "Exit" sign, at the bottom of the wide stairs. So, the first one wasn't a fluke.

...Hold on, stairs? You said this was a single level plane.

Yes, stairs. Exit sign, wide carpeted steps, railings on both sides, the whole bit. They went down to a lower level, and I could see a few suitcases piled up against one wall. ...Wait a minute, suitcases visible from my seat? 

I learned later this was part of the "Luggage at Hand" option offered by the aircraft - you could buy your ticket and check-in on-board, but not on the International flights.You could walk your own bags into the baggage deck.

The safety spiel was long since finished, but I was suddenly fully engaged and very interested in this peculiar aircraft, and in particular how it related to my own safety. 

Steps to the baggage compartment? Only Exit signs?  What else was going to be different about this plane?

Keep them on the Edge of their Seat

OK, now you have their attention. Your message is different, and fresh - OK,  maybe just different, but they are listening to you, so don't complain. What do you do next? Right - weave in the important parts of your message into your story while they are interested. Wait - is my message a story? Why not? Stories and anecdotes can be a powerful medium for a message to be delivered in a fun and engaging way. So tell them what you want to tell them - but keep it interesting.

After takeoff, I continued to look around the aircraft. I noticed the person beside me had his feet up. Yes - he had his feet up, with the ultimate in legroom. He had flopped the seat-back in front of him down flat.

...Wait - seats are only supposed to recline backwards, right? They are not supposed to flip forward and sandwich you...?!

As the flight was quite empty, I had three seats to myself, as did the person in front of me. And behind me. And beside me. So I sat by the aisle...and in the middle...and then at the window, getting my maximum value from the three seats. I casually flopped the seat-back forward in front of me, and enjoyed the ample legroom with my feet up. Thus relaxing and thinking about perhaps having a nap, I looked out the window at the engines and the right wing. There was only a slight lulling chop for turbulence, more like a rhythmic bouncing sensation. The plane was gently bouncing in time with the flapping of the wings.

Hey, No Sleeping in the Back Row!

Keep things moving, don't let the message get stale. It might just be time for another zinger or small surprise.

...Flapping? Yes, this was a jet - and yes, the ends of the long, slender wings were bouncing up and down, making them flap about 6 feet (2m) up and down at the wing tips. Suddenly, I began to feel nervous, and uncomfortably alert. 

I then glanced at the twin jet engines on the right side, positioned forward of the wing on long booms. Both engines were bouncing up and down.

Yes, bouncing!

The engines were not bouncing the same way, though - they counter-bounced. One went up while the other went down, about once a second.

Flap, flap, flap, bounce, bounce, bounce.

Suddenly I was very, very nervous.

Send the message home

Repetition in your message is fine, as long as you don't over do it. A common teaching practice is to "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you have told them." Make sure to emphasize your key point - the stories and anecdotes are great, but make sure they remember the core of the message you are trying to deliver.  

I shuddered, and turned my attention back inside the aircraft. I was just in time to see the passenger in front of me rub his back against the seat. He was twisting to rub an itchy bit of his back against the side of the seat cushion, but as he did so, the entire frame of all three seats in his row visibly twisted with his movement.

At that point, I simply gave up worrying. 

If we ever crashed, nobody would ever survive. It was the longest 5 1/2 hour flight of my life.

One thing is for sure though - they had [accidentally] gained - and held - my complete and undivided attention for the entire trip.


Everybody seems to want a slice of your attention. It is no wonder people are complaining that attention spans are constantly decreasing - there is no shortage of interruptions and distractions that are all wanting a piece of you - and your time.

It used to be that the simple phrase "May I have your attention, please?" would have most of the people in the room politely turn and listen to the speaker for a decent period of time - to listen to an announcement, or perhaps a full hour-long presentation. Now, however, we seem to have grown immune to this polite request. Buzzing, chirping, ringing, tweeting, and just plain lack of social etiquette seems to be the order of the day. Even when we say we are paying attention, our fingers are itching to check email, Facebook, twitter or texts. For most of us it has become a habit - or even an addiction.

"Not me", you say - "I pay attention! Don't count me as one of those 'rude' people!"

Well, perhaps you are an exception. However, not many can resist the constant distractions surrounding us and in the palm of our hand or our pockets.

Oh, hey, but wait - I have one more interruption...

Did They Get the Message?

Hey, what about the airplane story above? How does it fit in with "getting your attention" and "communicating a message" - after all, the flight attendant spoke for barely a minute, reading off some card that apparently did not even relate to their aircraft. What 'message' were they trying to pass on? They didn't even care to get their facts straight, while *I* have an important presentation to give to a group of 500 people. I prepared for weeks - how could you even compare the two things? want the secret.

That's gonna cost you.

You gotta pay.....attention.

The important thing to remember about your message is not the actual message delivery itself. It is what the audience takes away from the experience that matters. What will they take away from their journey with you?

The anonymous flight attendant said little - but the experience spoke volumes. I learned to pay attention on aircraft - and not take my surroundings for granted. In doing so, I became very aware of how different things were - and how they could potentially affect my safety. It was, effectively, an interactive, 5 1/2 hour long self-directed "safety briefing" that started with the "hook" from the flight attendant. I learned a few more things too:

  • I learned that I may think twice about flying on that particular type of aircraft again. 
  • I came to appreciate the other aircraft I had become used to flying on, with their short-legroom, no-flip-forward seats, their non-flapping wings and engines firmly affixed to the wings in a most satisfactorily non-bouncy way.
  • I also learned that "this aircraft may be different" is not an idle threat!

When you prepare for and deliver your presentation, think as much about how you are presenting your message as what you are trying to say. You never know what the audience will actually take away from your presentation, but if you can engage them and keep up their interest in what you have to say, they may actually end up leaving with some of the message you were trying to convey.

Good luck with your projects, take care in crafting and delivering your messages - and next time you are on an airplane, pay attention to the safety briefing!

Gary Nelson, PMP