Ladies and Gentlemen, Attention Pleas.

money shot.png
Every second counts
— Paul Daniels

So now that we know that the first rule of crowd pleasing is ‘audiences take 7 seconds to lose’ , what about if you still have them at 8?

Welcome to Lesson 2.

First, let me be clear - I get it. 7 seconds to lose a crowd? That’s tough. There’s pimples that get more attention than that.

No wonder public speaking is so many people’s worst nightmare - it just doesn’t seem fair, right?

So let me begin our next lesson with this:

The audience owes you nothing at all.

And before you assume this is to say ‘the crowd is against you’, it’s not.

The reason attention is so hard to win is because it’s one of the rarest commodities in the world. Understand this, and you’ve made your first step toward getting it.

In other words, attention is won by those who appreciate it’s worth.

Allow me to break this down in 8 simple steps.


1. The Human Brain is designed to delete you.

Diagram of an overloaded humam brain.

Diagram of an overloaded humam brain.

The amount of input encountered at any given moment for acknowledgment by the average human brain is so mind-bogglingly multitudinous that if we didn’t have a system for curtailing what we acknowledge, we’d crash like a laptop each time we woke up. The simple act of opening our eyes in the morning would result in a daily restart in safe-mode for everyone.

So, our brains have evolved this miraculous process of carefully filtering what is and is not important, all of it happening entirely subconsciously.

Each time we choose to focus on something, the choice actually comes from a shortlist that our subconscious compiled previously in order to vet what it deemed worthy of consideration.

The reason this happens is simply because compared to the sheer amount of stuff out there asking for attention, our heads can fit barely a fraction’s worth. Simply put, the world around us is filtered by our brains.

The hippocampus is the red bit.

The hippocampus is the red bit.

(fun fact on this - it’s thought that one of the reasons we sleep is so the brain’s hippocampus can filter all we have experienced earlier that day, deciding what we should keep and what’s just thrown away. Some believe this to be what causes us to dream - how cool is it that?).

The mind-blowing implication to knowing all this is that our ‘perception’ of the physical world is less the reality of what’s actually around us and more of a pencil sketch so we get the idea. 

Processes like this explain everything from the blind spot in our eyes that we can’t actually see (because our brains just make an educated guess and sort of Photoshop what’s probably there), to why the train ride home after a long day at work is sometimes hard to recall the moment we’ve stepped onto the platform. We constantly filter what isn’t important so there’s always the room for the other stuff that is.

To summarise the point being made here: the first reason I believe attention to be among the most precious of gifts for a person to give is because getting it means you’re taking it away from something else.

In other words, if someone gives you their attention, you damn well better have something to say.

 Which brings us to our second point:

2. Attention is a gift that you’ll never deserve.

The biology lesson above brings us up to why attention is so precious a thing. Attention deserves your utmost respect because it’s so exquisitely delicate and in short supply that entrusting it to your care should be both humbling, and worthy of much in return.  

For example, let’s say you used your initial seven seconds well. You came on stage, stated your case. Nailed it. Consider yourself engaged. The audience’s undivided attention is yours and that’s brilliant - what a thing to experience - it’s palpable – you feel it in the air.

But magic like that doesn’t come for free. The time you’ve been given is merely on loan, which means you now have a debt to repay.


The clock is ticking.

The clock is ticking.

3. you have 14 minutes to be unforgettable.

The window you’ve been given once you’re given attention is said to be somewhere around the 14-minute mark, although I fear it’s less. This is the window you have to prove what was paid was worth all of the cost.

This is where your obligation becomes to devote your entire existence to fill that small piece space you’ve been given with something worth being there. From a laugh to a lesson, from story to song, what you owe is your audience to feel glad that they stayed.


4. Fascination is a formula.

Here’s the big secret. There’s nothing mysterious about what we call ‘charm’ or ‘charisma’: a person with ‘presence’ doesn’t have some ethereal gift. These are just words that we use to describe when one persuades another to pay them attention. And I promise there’s more maths than there is magic to this.

Let’s treat an audience’s attention as a formula. It would go something like:

Engagement provided = attention given proportionate to value returned.

I’m sure there’s a better way of saying this but come on - I’ve made a car disappear, gimme a break.

What I mean is that attention created (through our ability to attract it in the initial seven seconds) is relative to what must be provided in return. Put another way, don’t ask for something you can’t afford.

Okay fine - the equation needs work. What about:

Attention = Appreciation + Enrichment

By understanding how precious attention really is, you won’t ever waste it, and by knowing its value you’ll be better informed about what’s needed to earn it.

But in case I still haven’t expressed just how enormous the value attention deserves to be given, try this:

5. Attention is a superpower.

I’ve been working out.

I’ve been working out.

After all we’ve discussed, it should be obvious why attention is valuable - the demand exceeds the supply.

But we’ve barely scratched the surface of just how much power a person’s attention gives you when you have it. Which is where this entire theory becomes really interesting.

If you are given somebody’s attention, you now the power to influence their behaviour. To change how they think, feel and act as a result. Or if you want to get a little Voldermort about it, you can now bend people to your will. Having somebody’s attention is a super power, and therefore that power comes with great responsibility.

Attention’s power comes the fact that whenever it’s given, that moment will remain on long after in the minds of those who gave it. The things people pay attention to have the power to change their lives forever - they remain as memories to be recalled. They exist to inspire, to enrich, to motivate, comfort, reflect and remind. They are the sum that make up the whole of us. Of who we all are.

And if at this point you’re wondering what makes me think I have any idea what I’m talking about at all, let me go back a little to my qualifications.


6. Magic is The Craft of Crowd Control.

Magic is my trade. All my training in crowd pleasing was born and honed there. It’s my passion, my craft, and what took me from hosting living rooms to some of the largest conference halls in the world.

 At first, I felt slightly uncomfortable about this shift – what makes me think I’m some ‘audience expert’ – I’m just a magician. I’m the distraction, not the director.  

But the more I’ve transitioned from the a show-act to show-designer, the reason it works has become steadily more clear.

Magic as performance is the single most exhaustive method of training a person in how to control where a crowd places its attention.

From a flick of the wrist to the wave of a hand, magic relies on the steering of focus away from the trick to create the illusion.

Magic as an art form is learned by knowing the ways in which attention is focused, in order that what can control where it’s swayed. It’s wonder via behavioural science, creation of a world you want people to see.  

There’s nobody better at crowd control than a magician.


7. How to inspire action? Think like a magician.

Let me give you a really simple example of how inspiring action requires setting up the appropriate circumstances to do so first – a story of how the most mundane of moments can be made unforgettable by thinking like a magician.

Every year there’s this sales conference in Bangkok. Intense two day event, over a thousand people, packed timetable, long hours - you know the type. It’s currently late afternoon at the International Trade and Exhibition Centre as conference will soon draw to close. People are making their way into the main hall where the finale is about to take place – the COO’s closing keynote.

Every year this guy would get up on stage to toast the success of his team. To tell them how proud he was of them all.

He always spoke humbly; open and honest, succinct and sincere. Everyone knew how authentic his sentiments were. But for him, it never quite felt his point had been ‘heard’.

And the only way this year’s would be any different, was that I had been hired to make sure it was.


Our work together had begun weeks before with a series of lengthy conversations. We talked about everything - his work, his team, the conference, the venue, the format, the background - everything needed to bring me up to speed. What soon became clear was how genuine the trust that he had for his team really was. His faith in them was complete.

At one point he told me his success was his knack for hiring those he knows will excel. He felt like all he had to do was ensuring that they could see in themselves what he saw in them.

Now this, this was something we could work with. This is our opener. This is our 7 seconds.  

We’d begin this time around with a speech from the heart. Instead of praising their sales figures, we’ll praise them. No stats, no charts, no projections. Just openness, honesty and pride.

The opposite of what they expected to hear would be how we get their attention.

Then once we have it, how do you want them to feel now they’re here? His answer was perfect: ‘like they can do anything’.

His hope was for his entire team to leave feeling as though any room they walked into would always be one they would leave with a sale.

What we needed in order to land that kind of motivation was a moment. Something they’d never forget. The slam dunk, the mic drop… the Money Shot. The clip below is what closed the show.


8. the secret to getting an audience’s attention?

I guess the takeaway I’m hoping to provide is that there is no secret to getting attention. It all comes down to this one simple concept:

Attention is precious. Earn it.

Attention isn’t something to be taken. It can’t be demanded, expected, borrowed or cajoled.

It is paid to those who know its worth and put the work in for it.

It is paid to those proving the cost of its payment is equal to what they’ll get back in return.


When I think about attention, I picture everyone in the world with a number, one that belongs only to them but will never know. Each of these numbers is the sum of that person’s seconds they get to spend here on this earth. And for each of these seconds our brains will filter, file, discard or store what was most important in all of that time.

Attention to me is when somebody gives up a few of their seconds just for you. So it’s then up to us that instead of just wasting them, we make sure they’re spent on something worthwhile. Attention to me is space that you’re given to add to the scrapbook of somebody’s life.

I believe the more that we treat attention like this - as precious and special - a gift to treasured, the more we will all of us learn to be kinder and better and appreciate more the value we all have to give, not just in public speaking but in our lives in general.

In short, the secret to getting an audiences attention is by respecting what it is and putting the work in required to earn it. It’s no more simple or complex than that.

Thank you for reading. I hope it was worth the attention you paid.


David Howlett