“There’s two people having breakfast and there’s a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that’s a surprise. But if it doesn’t…” This is how Alfred Hitchcock described suspense. According to Wikipedia, “Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment.” You don’t have to like thrillers to experience suspense. Watch this incredible performance by dance artist Miyoko Shida for the Spanish TV program “Tú Sí Que Vales” and notice suspense in the judges’ faces.
Suspense is a coveted state that any speaker and storyteller would like to create for the audience. It is the ultimate tool of brain captivation that leaves the audience hanging on your every word, waiting to hear what happens next. How do you achieve suspense in speeches and presentations? Here are five strategies that can help:
1. Open powerfully. It takes your audience only a few seconds to decide whether they like you and want to hear more. That’s all we have to capture someone’s attention from the start. Your audience’s minds can be anywhere: thinking about what to have for lunch, compiling their grocery list, or making social media status updates. You need something powerful to snap them out of their current preoccupations and bring them with you on the journey. The World Class Speaking System recommends opening with “the Big Bang” instead of the so called “unpleasant pleasantries” that we hear so often from other presenters. The best way to create a powerful opening is to go straight into a story that can captivate the audience members and make them want to hear more.
2. Blend anticipation and uncertainty. Miyoko Shida’s performance is a spiral of anticipation when she introduces each new piece and uncertainty of whether she will be able to balance the structure. It keeps our eyes glued to the screen. In a speech, you can achieve suspense by following Alfred Hitchcock’s advice and sharing things with the audience which the characters in your story do not know and building tension as the characters uncover the truth. A common example would be a description of a study or research in a presentation where the subjects are unaware of the set-up, which is shared with the audience. The audience members approach the whole situation from the researchers’ perspective, hypothesizing certain outcomes, yet being uncertain of what they will find.
3. Let the audience experience the scene by using sensory language and compelling visuals. In movies, suspense is often achieved through the rapid change of close-ups, detail shots and music. It stimulates the sensory system of the viewers. Research shows that bizarre and grotesque images in printed ads are effective at grabbing attention because consumers take time to figure out what is happening in the pictures. They approach such images as stories or paintings. Create a sensory experience for your audience members that will fuel their brains’ urge to predict what happens next and thus will keep them engaged.
4. Escalate conflict. Every good story goes through the phases of conflict or struggle followed by a resolution. For the climax to occur, you have to build the tension. Escalate the conflict as if you were inflating a balloon almost to the point of burst. Make the characters in your story speak in dialogue. Reveal their inner ruminations and the build-up of emotions. Make the audience feel the struggle and be eager to see the resolution and change.
5. Introduce a brain jolt. A brain jolt can be any activity that surprises the brain and captures attention. You can offer a puzzle for your audience to solve, a magic trick, a captivating image to ponder, or a powerful question or quotation to reflect on. The idea is to get the audience super-focused at least for a few moments on the task at hand. These moments of concentration create a sense of flow and engagement with the content.