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Trying to Grab Their Attention? Try Saying Less

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It's 6 a.m. and Mika looks exasperated.

She co-hosts "Morning Joe," a talk show on MSNBC. This morning, Joe, the other co-host, plus assorted guests, are busy eating junk cereal.

I'm on an elliptical machine in my basement, working out and watching all this in a desperate attempt to forget I'm working out.

Usually, Mika and Joe spar about politics. But today they're arguing about Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms, and Cap'n Crunch.

Mika finally takes all the cereal boxes and dumps them in the trash, at which point Joe says something like, "Don't think I won't take the cereal out of there and eat it."

Why is this so entertaining? I wonder.

Here's one reason: props. Those cereal boxes grab us.

Remember show & tell? Props let you show more, tell less.

When you say, Junk food is good (or bad), that's telling. When you eat Frosted Flakes (or dump them), that's showing.

Showing is visual. Like watching TV, it steals your attention. You temporarily forget that it's 6 a.m., that you're on an elliptical, and that you'd rather be sleeping, or eating vast quantities of Froot Loops.

That's the problem with most business information: it's abstract and hard to see—even harder to eat, or digest. (True, you can see PowerPoint slides, but they have their own complications.)

Props solve that problem.

Imagine you're giving a presentation about a predicament that confronts every single organization: different groups/departments don't get each other.

You can talk about it, but can you show it? I once coached an executive for a presentation like that.

The exec faced his audience, took a few water bottles and placed each one on a different table in the room. He didn't say a word.

No one knew what he was up to; everyone paid attention.

Then he said, "This is the way we work—in silos." He talked about that for a while.

Note: he used a concrete object (water bottle) to represent an abstract idea (working in silos). With props, you don't need to be literal. A water bottle, for example, can be anything.

At the end, he retrieved the bottles and poured all the water into one pitcher. "Break down the barriers," he said.

  • Tip #1: Break down the barriers that block attention. Experiment with props.
  • Tip #2: For cereal, try Kashi. But don't eat it, or anything else, in front of your audience.

Generally, no one wants to see that.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com