How To Keep Your Listeners Engaged With Rhythm And Variety

Human brains have evolved to recognise patterns.

We see faces in the clouds, recognise patterns in the weather, and connect causes with effects.

We get used to the idea that if the doorbell rings at 9.30 am it is probably the postman.

However if the doorbell rings at 12.30 - that is interesting! - Who can that be?

We are reassured by repetition; and we are stimulated by variety.

If you have ever played hiding or tickling games with a baby, first of all they love the predictability of the repetition:

'One step, two step and tickly under there.'

...but even they get bored when it becomes too predictable…. until you don't tickle - or tickle somewhere else!

Once again, they are fully involved and back in the game!

We are programmed to recognise patterns, but once the pattern is too predictable, we lose interest.

Therefore if our training takes on a very formulaic pattern, we need to think about how to vary it.

One of my sons started working in a major corporation.

They had a series of workshops and training programmes.

Fairly quickly he said most of the interns started to lose interest,
because the format became totally predictable.

We are programmed to explore, hence too much repetition instils an emotional response called 'boredom'; while a bit of novelty induces an active response of 'curiosity'.

A wise trainer, speaker, storyteller will recognise that both urges exist:

  • the pleasure of recognising a pattern, and
  • the thrill of seeing a break in that pattern.

This is why so many parables and nursery rhymes are woven out of almost hypnotic patterns of repetition and nearly always 'on the third occasion' something different happens to break the pattern.

The Billy Goats Gruff or the 3 Little Pigs follow the same formula.

Neither story would be very inspiring (in fact probably rather dark and depressing) if on the third occasion the exact same thing happened again!

Musicians practise scales and exercises in order to master recurring patterns, so that when they occur in the music they can recognise them quickly and play them.

However, like with the Billy Goats Gruff, it is the little changes and variations on those patterns that make the music worth listening to: turning 'Boring' into Bach.

The same holds true in any training or teaching environment where new processes or material need to be learnt.

When teaching new computer software, the student will probably enjoy and be reassured by the recognition of the pattern:

'Click on menu, click on file, click on documents...' as long as it is mixed with small steps of variety,
'but this time open…'

As a musician learning new music, I remember on occasions the progress from total novelty (all new and almost overwhelming) to recognising and mastering the patterns and key moments, to feeling comfortable and enjoying being able to play the piece, to getting bored of playing the same thing night after night.

All trainers and presenters need to remember that for many participants there is very thin line between overwhelmed and bored.

Therefore trainers, speakers and storytellers should always search for a balance between repetition and surprise to keep their listeners engaged and alert.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.

To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here