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Pressing 'Refresh': How To Maintain The Audience's Attention

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In 5 ways to keep your audience's attention I pointed out that conversation is not only the first type of communication we learn, but we also spend our lives perfecting our skill at it, to the point where it's only very occasionally that we have to communicate in any other way. But while a conversation is a dialogue in which two or more people take turns to contribute, a presentation is usually a monologue.

We're programmed to only have to concentrate for a few sentences before it's our 'turn' to speak. But a typical presentation is many hundreds of times longer than anything we have to listen to in a conversation. So imagine what a strain it is to have to concentrate attentively without speaking for 20 or 30 minutes! Just think how easily you lose concentration when listening to other people's presentations.

Research shows that unless you're presenting on a topic that's really, really interesting to them, you'll lose their attention far quicker than you think.

Attention graph

In his book Brain Rules (a great book - if you're interested in how the brain works, I'd recommend it), John Medina quotes some research that measured students' attention span during a 50 minute lecture. The results are shown in the graph to the left.

Medina's key point is that you lose them after about 10 minutes, unless you take specific steps to ensure it doesn't happen. Attention started to increase around the 40 minute mark, but this was probably because the lecturer mad some comment about nearly being at the end, e.g. "So in conclusion/summary . . .". or "OK, we're coming into the final stretch now . . ."

The movie The Comedian is a behind-the-scenes documentary following Jerry Seinfeld as he prepares and tests a new stand-up comedy tour. He was probably the world's highest paid comedian at the time of filming, with 9 seasons of one of the most successful sitcoms of all time behind him. But even with that pedigree and track record, he reckons the audience gives him 3 MINUTES to impress them.

“I have about three minutes where they will listen to whatever I have to say,” he says. “But after that . . . I get no credit. After three minutes, I have to be just as funny as any other comedian. That’s it—three minutes.”

If that's all Jerry Seinfeld gets, maybe John Medina's 10 minutes is optimistic!

Here are 7 tips for you:

WIIFM

1. Explain the C.A.B.

Firstly, you need to make sure the audience understands the importance of what you have to say. Not to you (in their minds that's not important), but to THEM. Think of each member of the audience as having a cartoon thought bubble coming out of their heads with "WIIFM?" - "What's in it for me?" I can't stress the importance of this enough (see Answering "What's in it for me?": The importance of having a Clear Audience Benefit (C.A.B.))

2. Keep them in 'FT mode'

You need to keep their brains in 'Fast Thinking' mode (see Fast vs Slow thinking if you don't understand the difference between the two). Every time they have to really concentrate and use their 'Slow Thinking' process, you risk losing them. The main way to do this is to keep your slides clear, simple, uncluttered and easy to understand (see Analysis Paralysis: Why too much information can lead to worse decision making and How to avoid the 'Data Dump': Keeping your slides simple).

3. Press the audience's 'Refresh' button every 10 minutes

Refresh button

John Medina recommends specifically doing something to stimulate their interest every 10 minutes which is the equivalent of pressing the audience's 'refresh/reset' button, as in the graphic.

4. Use humor

It's almost impossible NOT to pay attention if everyone else is laughing. How often do you ever drift off when watching a comedian perform live? (see How to use humor in a presentation: 10 tips to get 'em rolling in the aisles)

5. Tell a story

Everyone likes stories. In fact, we're hard-wired to listen to them. For tens of thousands of years before mankind discovered the art of writing, the only effective form of communication was via storytelling. Stories were learned verbatim and passed on from generation to generation as entertainment, education and to instill moral values. Which is why they still have such an effect on us today, and why they can be an incredibly effective way of making a point during a presentation.

Many times someone will say to me, 'I heard you speak about 4 or 5 years ago. I remember that story you told about the hotel in Sydney.' I've never had anyone say, 'I remember that PowerPoint slide you used with the 3 bullet points.' (see 8 tips for adding 'oomph!' to your stories)

6. Encourage audience participation

Have a mini Q&A during the presentation. Say "OK, has anyone got any questions about what I've covered so far before I move on?" or "Has that ever happened to you?" or "What do you think - is that the situation as it appears to you as well?" or "Do you think that's a fair summary of the situation we find ourselves in?"

A mini Q&A gives people a break from just listening to your voice. It changes the monologue into a more familiar dialogue, and its 'live' element is engaging.

An alternative is to get them to write something down. Say: "What I'd like you to do is identify three areas where this affects your department/area of operations/performance."

7. Change something

Change something . . . anything . . . but provide some variety. For example, you could change speaker or the type of visual aide you're using (e.g. run a video or use the flipchart). You could also change the position in the room you're presenting from. If you're responsible for setting up the room, lay it out in a U-shape. That way you can walk in among the audience. Anyone whose mind is wandering will quickly start to pay attention if you walk right up to them.

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