Audience members’ attention will fade over time unless you take specific steps to keep them engaged.
Here’s a graph showing the attention of university students during a 50 minute lecture—during which the lecturer lost his audience. (Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review”)
Notice that at 40 minutes the attention seems to go up again (just a little). I’m guessing that this is the point where the lecturer started his sentence with, “In summary…”
The students perked up their ears again and refocused to get the gist of the lecture. Here’s what happened—the lecturer stumbled upon the audience’s Attention Reset Button. Although our attention span is limited, we do have the ability to refocus on a task. When you push the Attention Reset Button, you’re giving your audience that opportunity to refocus.
So, that’s what you must do when you’re losing your audience. Push your audience’s Attention Reset Button. Instead of fading to near zero, your audience’s attention will spring back.
How often should you push the Attention Reset Button?
Plan to push the Attention Reset Button about every 10 minutes. This is a rule of thumb that seems to work for most audiences. For example, John Medina says in his book Brain Rules:
“I decided that every lecture I’d ever give would come in discrete modules. Since the 10 minute rule had been known for many years, I decided the modules would last only 10 minutes.”
Be aware that your audience’s attention span will vary according to many factors—warmth of the room, time of day, how much sleep they had the night before, how intrinsically interested they are in the topic. Be prepared to adjust to the needs of your audience. For instance in the morning you might plan for intervals of 15 minutes between each Attention Reset. During the potentially sleepy after-lunch slot you might decrease that to five minutes.
How to push the Attention Reset Button
1. Tell a story
We’re hardwired to listen to stories. They instantly engage us and require very little effort to stay focused. Even the sleepiest audience member will perk up when you say, “I’ll tell you about a time when this happened to me.”
2. Make them laugh
Nobody can not pay attention when the rest of the audience is laughing. We want to know what’s funny. The crucial caveat is that your humor should be relevant to your presentation.
3. Make a transition
In the first graph I showed, the students’ attention rose near the end, and I’ve suggested that that was because the lecturer said “In summary…”
Now, I’m not suggesting that you should say “In summary…” when you’re not planning to summarize, but you can use transition statements as a signal to the audience that they should refocus. They may have got distracted for a couple of minutes and then found it hard to get back on track with what you’re saying.
If you make a transition statement such as, “So that’s the problem we’re facing, now I’ll go onto my recommendation to address it,” it gives them an opportunity to get back on board.
4. Break for a Q&A
The traditional method of ending your presentation with Q&A is a waste of a great way of re-engaging your audience. A short Q&A session during your presentation is engaging because:
- It’s a change from having just you talking
- Audience members can ask you questions about what they are interested in
- There’s a live element to a Q&A session that keeps people hooked.
Build a Q&A into your presentation, rather than leaving it until the end.
5. Change something—anything
We pay attention to change. You’re probably not aware of the air conditioning hum running in the background, but as soon as it stops you’ll notice it. Here’s what you can change in a presentation:
- Change the type of visual aid you’re using, e.g., from PowerPoint to a flip chart or whiteboard;
- Change the spot that you’re presenting from, e.g., stage to floor, part of stage;
- Change presenters;
- Change where people are sitting in the room;
- Change what audience members are doing, e.g., from sitting down to standing up.
6. Get them to talk
Allowing people to process your ideas by asking them to talk to the person sitting next to them is an excellent way of re-engaging them. For example, you could ask them to share with their neighbor, “What are three things you’ve learned so far in my presentation?”
7. Get them to write
Asking people to reflect by writing is also useful. For example “Write down three things you’ll do differently as a result of my presentation?”
8. Take a microbreak
In a longer session (anything more than 50 minutes) take a two- to five-minute break for people to stretch their legs, use the restroom, and refresh their beverages.
Be conceptually relevant
Don’t be one of those people who try to spice up a deadly dull presentation with cartoons or funny images that are not conceptually relevant. It looks desperate, and research by Richard Mayer (the guru of multimedia learning) shows that it harms the ability of the audience to take in your core message.
Use a variety of buttons
Don’t use the same technique every time. Instead use a variety of Attention Reset Buttons. If you’re using my Presentation Planner, here’s an example of how the planner might look with the Attention Reset Buttons highlighted:
What ways do you have of pushing your audience’s Attention Reset Button?
A version of this article first appeared on Speaking About Presenting.