When your audience tunes out

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The next time the higher-ups ask me to report how much attention my campaign bought us, I'll lower their expectations by reviewing the ROI of presidential campaigns. More than $2 billion was spent, but according to a CBS News poll, as many as one-fifth of American voters paid little to no attention.

When I was a speechwriter for IBM, I would stand in the back of the room when my executive presented, monitoring the audience closely for the moments of genuine connection, as well as those points when they seemed to drift off. I found, as a sometime standup comedian myself, that audience feedback is much easier to gauge. Audiences either laugh or they don't. And in New York City clubs, a comic doesn't need to worry that a laugh might merely be a courtesy.

These live audience experiences have intensely sharpened my focus as a content creator. I've shifted from thinking about what I want to say to anticipating precisely what the audience will hear.

In the midst of the unwatchable pabulum that I turned off during the final months of the presidential campaigns, there two shining examples of how to win back or win over an audience. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I'll cite each political party equally in this two-part blog series.

First, you need to make a convincing case. I learned the importance of being able to make a convincing argument from working as a speechwriter—and from being a husband. It's a powerful way to capture, or recapture, attention.

Few marketers or content creators effectively use the conditional argument: "If A, then B" with supporting specifics and statistics. Even simply citing a few numbers sends a subtle signal to your audience that you've done your homework and are being a good steward of the attention they are giving you.

President Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention made the strongest case of the campaign, and he honored the TED-ordained time limit, give or take half an hour. As Jon Stewart noted on The Daily Show, "In an amazing display of actually saying stuff, Bill Clinton threw out more specific numbers in one speech last night than the Republican leadership did in an entire week in Tampa."

What's more impressive is that many of Clinton's statics were actual facts. One exception: attributed the decrease in healthcare spending to the sluggish economy rather than the Affordable Care Act, as Clinton premised.

Gallup reported that 43% of Americans said that what they saw at the Democratic Convention made them more likely to vote for Barack Obama. View the full speech and transcript via The Washington Post. Alternately, Politico posted the best 15 lines if you're reading this while on a shorter conference call.

Tim Washer is senior manager-social media at Cisco Systems ( He can be reached at [email protected]

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