Man making a workplace presentation
By building tension, you can make your audience more engaged with your presentation. PHOTO: Startup Stock Photos

With scientists now clocking our attention spans as shorter than a goldfish, presenters in corporations need all the help they can get to keep their stakeholders engaged.

So I looked to one place that can hold our attention, even keep us riveted, for hours: the movies. I wanted to see what tools we could bring to the conference room to raise that engagement.

I found many, but my favorite technique not only makes you love your favorite films, but I think is actually the key ingredient in everything we find enticing: Tension.

The Role of Tension

You’ll find tension in the sway of dancing, the thrill of sports, the challenge before an accomplishment, the sour, the sweet and the tick, tick, tick of a roller coaster heading slowly up the track before ... the big drop.

And yes, it can also make your presentation more powerful and engaging. A lot more. In fact, not having tension is a key reason the goldfish have pulled ahead.

Neuroscientist Paul Zak found that without tension, the brain is actually pretty stingy.

“When we showed these very flat stories with no tension, we saw the attention drop after about 20 seconds,” he said.

4 Ways to Use Tension in the Workplace

So how do you, at a corporation, about to deliver a presentation, use tension? There are four major ways: anticipation, pacing, framing and music.

Create Anticipation

Anticipation is the technique we all know best. While the typical corporate method is to make the key point in the headline, then support it with bullets, films flip it and hold back the key information from us or from the characters. That keeps us at the edge of our seats, yearning for the answer.

You can do the same thing when you’ve got a major point you want everyone to remember: start with the points you might normally use as bullets and use them as clues to tease your stakeholders with anticipation, making them yearn for your key point.

Pace It Out

As you lead them through these clues, subtly and smoothly ramp up the speed and volume of your voice so you increase the tension. Then, just before you hit your key point…pause… maybe even ask a rhetorical question ... and then pause … a little more.

The vacuum you create in the room will fill with anticipation. Now, you’ve got them where you want them and it’s time to make the key point.

But this time, if you slow down your pace, you’ll not only release the tension and enable your point to sink in, your key point will also come across as even more thoughtful, powerful and important.

You see this technique in heroic speech scenes in movies, but you’ll also hear them from ministers, politicians, TED talks and from any successful presenter.

They work because that vacuum draws people in, floods their brains with neurochemicals and makes the key point stick. It creates a moment and moments are what move us.

Frame It Up

Movies take these moments even further with framing and camera movement. My favorite is a shot called the “dolly push.” You see it in every love scene.

When filmmakers want you to emotionally bond, they move the camera toward the actor. You can do the same thing with your feet. When you want to stress your key point and make your audience listen more closely, move slowly toward them to increase the tension and emotional bond.

When you finish, simply move back again, release the tension and let them absorb your point. It’s a simple move, but try it and you’ll see, it feels like a superpower.

Make It Sing

One of the reasons all of these techniques work so powerfully in movies is that they’re coupled with music. Music works like a shortcut, straight to the emotional part of our brains. Joy, mystery, freedom, fear: all can be conjured in a nanosecond with music.

Very few people play music in a conference room, but every time I’ve seen it in a presentation, it heightens engagement and delivers an emotional effect.

It is, of course, one more thing to manage, so it’s best inserted into your deck so you don’t have to hit the play button.

One of the easiest ways to use music is to have something playing when people walk into your conference room. Music that’s upbeat, but relaxing — think Motown, Pharrell or Sunday-morning-on-the-porch guitars — relaxes people and opens them up.

Yes, it’s definitely unconventional in a corporate setting, but if your stakeholders have already been to several presentations that day, they’ll really appreciate the lift.

It will refresh them, cleanse them of all the charts and bullets they’ve been shown that day and open them up to your information.

It will also communicate very quickly that your presentation will be anything but boring.