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From the desk of Steve Lowell, Master Speaker and Mentor to those who speak in public.

The SPICE Formula of Sensational Speaking

I Is For Intermittent Incongruity

The best way to explain this concept is with an example.

In late 2009, I was at a small networking meeting in Ottawa that featured Katrina as the guest speaker. Katrina is a family lawyer, and is a very pretty young lady, and she is a regular member of the group. Being a new member myself, I hadn’t had the opportunity to speak with her much, so I didn’t really know her well.

This group’s intentions are to hold presentations that help members better understand each other’s businesses, enabling everyone to refer business to each other through this networking.

During her presentation, Katrina stood behind a long table. At one end of this table, she placed two file folders along with a white banker’s box, and at the other end she placed a sealed garment bag.

I noticed that Katrina was impeccably dressed. She was wearing a white blouse and scarf with a dark jacket and dress pants, so I wondered what the garment bag contained at the other end of the table.

She began her presentation with this statement. “There are four stages to the process of litigation for divorce.” She then began to describe a situation that had occurred with a client of hers. Of course, the example was real, but the identities of the parties involved were never disclosed.

Katrina explained a bit about the situation, and within less than a minute, she held up the first file folder, containing a stack of papers about three inches thick. She slammed the file folder on the table in front of her and said, “This case was settled at stage one, ‘negotiation.’ This represents about five-thousand dollars in legal fees.”

With her next words, Katrina began to unbutton her jacket. As you can imagine, this move perked up the attention of everyone in the room. “Why is she unbuttoning her jacket?”

With her jacket now unbuttoned, she began to describe a second case which went beyond the first stage of negotiation and into the second stage, called “mediation.”

While she explained the mediation stage, Katrina held up the second file folder which was much thicker than the first. She slammed that folder on top of the first folder, and said “This is stage two. This represents about ten-thousand dollars in legal fees.”

Katrina then moved to a third scenario in which the parties weren’t able to settle in stage one or stage two and had to move into stage three, “arbitration.” As she spoke, she removed her jacket, untied the scarf that was around her neck and removed that as well. Now she really had everyone’s attention!

While this was happening, I thought to myself “I see what she’s going to do here. She’s going to take those clothes off and put whatever is in the garment bag on. I’m curious to see what happens between stage three and stage four!” Katrina had my undivided attention!

With her jacket and scarf now removed, Katrina stood there, wearing a white blouse with the top button or two unfastened. Although this wasn’t an unusual state of dress for a professional woman, it was a stark contrast to her fully-covered appearance when she began her presentation only a few minutes earlier. Katrina continued to walk us through this interesting series of events.

Reaching into the banker’s box this time, she retrieved several piles of paper and slammed each of the piles onto the table. She explained that the entire contents in this banker’s box were generated by only one case, a case that had gone into the third stage. That paperwork represented about twenty-thousand dollars in legal fees.

Next, moving toward the garment bag, she explained that this particular client was not willing to settle, so they were going to move into stage four, “court proceedings.”

While explaining stage four, Katrina extracted an accessory of clothing from the garment bag and placed the accessory around her neck, forming a collar. She then proceeded to do up the top buttons of her blouse. Her next move was the punch-line of her presentation.

Reaching into her garment bag, Katrina pulled out a black gown. This is the gown that she wore whenever she had to represent a client in court. In Canada, lawyers must wear a proper gown when in court. She placed the gown around her shoulders and, with perfect timing, she said, “Stage four is when the gown goes on, and when the gown goes on, the gloves come off!”

With that, she ended her presentation.

Before writing these words, I e-mailed Katrina to ask her permission to use her presentation as an example in this book. I had to ask her to remind me of a few details of her presentation, in order to give an accurate account here. I realized I had forgotten the names of the stages; I wasn’t sure if there were four or five stages, and I couldn’t recall what the dollar amounts attached to each stage of the process were, but, I certainly remembered the gist! I also remembered that in a divorce, every stage costs thousands of dollars more and divorces had better get done before the gown goes on, because when the gown goes on, the gloves come off!

You see, the brain likes gist more than details, and with Katrina’s presentation, her details supported the gist. If we were to ask anyone who attended that presentation, my guess is that most of them wouldn’t remember the exact details, but all of them would remember the gist. Mission accomplished!

According to Dr. John Medina, the human brain is a pattern recognition machine. Our brain likes to be able to predict with reasonable accuracy what is going to happen next, so we unconsciously scour the sensory landscape trying to find patterns.

We do this so that our brain doesn’t have to process everything from scratch every time we experience sensory input. If our brain can predict the likely outcome by basing its expectations on a recognized pattern, it can relax and dedicate its neuro-processing energy to other things. When the outcome matches the expectation, that’s congruity.

So, let’s see how congruity was used by Katrina’s presentation.

Katrina started her presentation, and as she spoke, my brain was searching for patterns. My brain identified a well-dressed lawyer at a table. The table held files and a banker’s box on it, as well as a garment bag. This represented a pattern that helped me reasonably predict the outcome; Katrina was going to speak to us and reference those files, the banker’s box and the garment bag.

In addition, my brain expects the pattern that people remain clothed as they give a presentation. That’s the most recognized pattern, so the expected outcome was that Katrina would remain clothed during her presentation.

Another pattern emerged as Katrina slammed the first file folder on the table and announced, “This represents about five-thousand dollars in legal fees.” My brain set the expectation that each time she referenced those papers, there would be a dollar amount attached to it.

Then, Katrina did something profound—she violated the expectation of an existing pattern. By unbuttoning her jacket, Katrina breached the pattern that predicted she would remain clothed during her presentation.

While Katrina unbuttoned her jacket, my brain said, “Hey! What’s this? This isn’t congruent with the predicted outcome of this recognized pattern!” This is an intermittent incongruity.

So my brain was in a bit of a conundrum because it began questioning the predicted outcome of a previously established pattern, and it became more alert as it entered a stage of dissonance. My brain needed to establish whether or not there was a new pattern emerging so it could predict the outcome. My brain was not relaxed!

While Katrina continued with her presentation, my brain was not only scouring the environment for a new pattern, but it was also reconfirming the other known patterns to ensure that they had not also been breached. Katrina had my full attention!

When Katrina removed her scarf, a new pattern was recognized and a new expectation was set—Katrina was going to disrobe during the presentation! But wait! There’s a garment bag there. That was another element of the pattern, so not only was she going to disrobe, she was going to put on a new set of clothes. The pattern had been confirmed, the outcome had been predicted and the expectation had been set. But there’s a problem. The pattern had a gap. What was going to happen between the time she took her existing clothes off and put the replacement clothes on? Once again, my brain searched for patterns to predict that outcome.

When Katrina first reached into the garment bag and donned the collar, she again breached an identified pattern and violated the predicted outcome. My brain had predicted that she was going to take one set of clothes off and then put another set of clothes on, but she didn’t do that. She began putting the second set of clothes on without taking the entire first set of clothes off. This was incongruent with the pattern and presented another intermittent incongruity.

Now, you might be saying “you didn’t actually think that she was going to completely disrobe in front of the entire room, did you?” Well, I am a man, and we do tend to think that way! However, I was not consciously expecting her to disrobe in front of everyone in the room. On an unconscious level, though, my brain predicted the outcome of a change of clothes. How it was going to be accomplished was the gap in the pattern due to the environment.

If I watched Katrina walk into a change-room with a garment bag, the predicted outcome based on that pattern would be that she would remove one set of clothes before donning the other set of clothes. That’s an expected outcome predicated by the recognized pattern of going into a change room while carrying a change of clothes.

But, in front of an audience, there was a gap in the pattern. I could see what she was wearing, I could see what appeared to be a change of clothes, but the environment was wrong. The environment was not congruent with the other two parts of the pattern. This posed an intermittent incongruity.

Katrina’s presentation was filled with patterns and predictable outcomes, but she inserted just enough intermittent incongruities to keep my brain searching for patterns and trying to predict what was going to happen next. She had my full attention every second of her presentation.

But there’s more!

When an incongruity occurs, the brain is sparked to a state of alertness, and during those split seconds, it’s able to receive and retain more information because it’s looking for answers. So, Katrina not only kept my brain awake, she also created an environment where I could accept the information she was presenting.

So, what’s the lesson? When possible, insert a slight but relevant intermittent incongruity into your presentation to maintain interest.

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