7 ways to keep audience attention during your presentation

by Olivia Mitchell

Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224 cited by John Medina in Brain Rules

Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224 cited by John Medina in Brain Rules

Keeping audience attention is more important and more difficult than grabbing audience attention. A reader emailed me:

“What can I do to keep the audience’s attention through the whole of my presentation. There are always people who don’t seem to be listening.”

A one-way presentation is one of the worst possible ways of transferring information from person to person. It requires discipline and effort to simply sit and listen passively to someone speak for any length of time.  Make it easier for your audience by following these seven guidelines:

[Warning: The first three guidelines require that you know your audience - do the work to find out what your audience is interested in, their background knowledge, level of experience etc.]

1. Talk about something your audience is interested in

You may think this is obvious and that you’d never make this mistake. But I see many otherwise intelligent people talk about what they’re interested in rather than what the audience is interested in.

Last week, a business banking specialist started designing a presentation he was planning to deliver to accountancy firms in his city. Most of his talk was about the internal organisational changes they had made in their team which would allow the team to service their clients better. But do his audience care about the internal organisational changes? No. His talk should have been focused on the services they offered to clients.

If you’re speaking at a conference, people come to your session because of the synopsis – that’s what they’re interested in. Don’t change it just because it suits you. Many years ago, I saw one of New Zealand’s most successful professional speakers make this mistake. Her session was advertised as being on email marketing. But, she’d just got entranced by Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for websites. She announced at the start that she didn’t want to talk about email marketing, but about SEO. The she asked how many people in the audience had a website. About 5 people out of 100 put their hands up. You’d think she’d change tack – but no. 95 people were subjected to a talk on a subject they had no interest in.

2. Tell them why they should listen

Before each of the presentations skills courses we run, we ask each participant to fill in an online questionnaire. The most critical question is this:

“How important are presentation skills to you?”

They answer by clicking on range of multichoice answers from “It’s vitally important” to “It’s not that important”. If a number of participants click on “It’s not that important” then we know we have to start the course by demonstrating the benefits of developing presentation skills. I start by telling my story of how developing presentation skills has enriched my career. Then Tony tells of speaking at his father’s funeral and the feeling of completion that that gave him. Now they’ve got a reason to listen.

So if your audience don’t have an obvious reason to be interested, tell them why they should bother listening to you. This can be challenging. I’ve had email discussions with a number of readers who present on topics such as health and safety issues or environmental regulations. The audience have to be there, but they have no intrinsic interest in the topic. The solution is to tell them why they should care. If you’re speaking on health and safety, tell them stories of people injured in your workplace and the consequences it had for them. I still remember being an audience member in a presentation on Occupational Overuse Syndrome. The speaker had suffered from it herself and described how she’d been unable to brush her own hair.

And if you can’t find a reason why they should listen – don’t give the presentation!

3. Don’t make it too easy or too hard

You’ve probably heard of the concept of “flow” developed by Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of being where you are fully engaged and fulfilled in what you’re doing. You lose track of time, your mind never wanders. When you describe a speaker as “compelling” that’s probably because you were in a state of flow. The ultimate goal is to have your audience in a state of flow (h/t to Chris Atherton and her post When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule is attention.)

There are many factors to achieve that nirvana, but one of the prerequisites for flow to occur is for the task to be not too easy and not too hard. When listening to a presentation, the main task is thinking. The thinking task you set has to have just the right level of challenge for the particular audience you’re speaking to. The level of challenge required will differ for different audiences – their confidence in the topic and their background knowledge being critical factors.

Listening to somebody talk through a series of bullet points does not require challenging thinking. So it gets boring very quickly.

Conversely, if the speaker puts up a complicated flow chart and dives right into the detail without explaining what it’s about, the thinking task will be too challenging. Daniel Willingham, in his book “Why students don’t like school” describes doing just this (as an experiment):

After about 15 seconds I stopped and said to the audience, “Anyone who is still listening to me, please raise your hand.” One person did.

So audit every minute of your presentation in terms of what is the thinking task that you’re asking your audience to engage in. Is it too easy or too hard?

4. “Change grabs attention”

The heading comes from Daniel Willingham’s book that I’ve quoted above (yes, it’s what I’m reading at the moment).

We notice change. You notice the hum of the air-conditioner when it comes on and when it goes off – but not in between. You can use this natural human propensity to retrieve your audience’s attention.

There are macro changes and there are micro changes:

Macro-changes

  1. Change the visual medium eg: from slides to flipchart and back again
  2. Change the physical state of the audience eg: from sitting around a table to standing around a flipchart
  3. Change the location of the room that you present from eg: from the front to the back
  4. Change the activity your audience is engaged in eg: from listening to you to discussing a problem with their neighbour
  5. Change presenters
  6. Change topics.

Micro-changes

  1. Make the edges between subtopics in your presentation clear eg: “So that’s the problem we’re trying to fix, let’s look now at what some of the options are.” If somebody has mentally checked out this gives them a cue to check back in again.
  2. Show a short video
  3. Use silence before and after critical statements
  4. Change your style of delivery according to the content. For instance when you’re making statements of fact, use a measured deliberate tone and stand still. When you tell a story, speed up, get chatty and move around.

As a guide, I use a macro-change at least every 10 minutes, and micro-changes continuously.

5. Tell stories

Every presentation expert extolls the power of stories. There’s evidence that people are hard-wired to listen to stories (see my post Are our brains wired to enjoy stories). When you say “ I’ll tell you a story about…” your audience will perk up. Your stories should of course reinforce the point you’re making. Take a look at your presentation from the point of view of stories. Are they sprinkled throughout your presentation – or bunched together? Sprinkle them out for best effect.

For more strategic insights into when and where to tell stories see When to tell a story and what story to tell.

You can also exploit the power of story to keep attention by structuring your whole presentation using a story structure – I’ll write more on this later (meanwhile if you know of any good links to this concept please do post them in the comments).

6. Have frequent breaks

Build in frequent breaks, but if you see people starting to flag in their attention suggest a “microbreak” for 1-2 minutes where people people can refresh their drinks and have a walk around. Moving is the most effective way of reviving people at risk of dozing off.

7. Make it short

The most effective way of keeping your audience’s attention is not to go on for too long.

For more great points on keeping audience attention see Chris Atherton’s post When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule is attention.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

John Turner November 19, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Olivia, I especially like number seven on your list, and will attempt to keep this brief as a result!

If the list could extend to eight, I would add “Ask them a question”. A question can wake a whole room up, if delivered in the right way :

“We’ve increased profits by 10%, and reduced staff costs by 5%. What does this tell us about the way forward?” Then PAUSE for long enough to make people wonder if you are expecting an answer. Then continue with your answer. “It tells us the LEAN approach is working”

This semi-rhetorical question technique works a treat with small groups, and as a coach it’s easy to demonstrate by posing the question “How easy is it to wake up a group?”, and then eyeing the group in a way that suggests I might want an answer. Then follow it up with “Are you more alert now than you were a few seconds ago?”

Rhetorical questions are great, but need a pause to make them work on the consciousness of a group. Each individual will wake up as you look at them.

If you get a retort before thje end of the pause, that’s a bonus; then you are turning monologue into dialogue.

This is a great site, by the way!

Regards
John Turner

Reply

Olivia Mitchell November 20, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Hi John

Great addition to the list of audience alert mechanisms! Thank you – and thanks for your comments on my website, Olivia.

Reply

Jim November 22, 2009 at 1:12 pm

May I add numbers 9 and 10 and 11?
9. The number one rule of sales is to convince the prospective customer “What’s in it for me?” The presenter must also convince his audience there’s something in it for them. Use the “if-then” approach; for example:
*If you do this, you’ll get more dates.
*If you do this, your sales will increase.
*Managers, if you do this, your morale/productivity, etc. will increase.
*If employees don’t start busing their own tables, then we may have to close the company cafeteria.
*Etc.

10. The presenter should communicate a sense of urgency or importance to the message. (If the subject is not urgent or important, why is everyone’s time being wasted with a presentation in the first place?). The danger is in the presenter’s sense of urgency/importance not being authentic or “real.”

11. Engage the audience in the presentation. Consider anecdotes about audience members (with prior permission), role-playing, brainstorming, questions-and-amswers, games, etc. For example, magicians like to call a member of the audience on stage for a trick — watch the audience perk up.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell November 22, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Thanks Jim for the excellent suggestions, Olivia.

Reply

Chris Witt November 23, 2009 at 3:17 am

Olivia,

Great post, as usual.

I would amend your first rule slightly: “Talk about something your audience AND YOU are interested in.”

Nothing bores and disengages me faster than speakers who themselves seem bored and disengaged. The trick is to find why and how my audience might be interested in something that interests me.

Chris

Reply

Olivia Mitchell November 23, 2009 at 8:25 pm

Excellent point, Chris. I know that this can be a challenge for some people.

For those of you who’ve lost the passion or interest in the topic you have to present on, do try and rekindle your passion. What got you into the issue to being with?

If you never had any interest in it, or simply can’t rekindle any passion, try and find passion in explaining this “boring” topic in the most engaging way. There’s a great post by Geni Whitehouse (@evenanerd on Twitter) on how to do this http://www.evenanerd.com/1/post/2009/11/the-presentation-that-almost-made-a-liar-out-of-me.html. Geni has also written a free eBook called “How to make a boring subject interesting”. I haven’t read it yet but it looks like it’s packed with ideas.

Olivia

Reply

Mark Arnold November 28, 2009 at 5:12 am

Oliva,

I just now started following your blog. Thanks for the tips with this post. The macro-micro changes suggestions were particularly helpful.

Going through your speech and marking when you are making changes and telling stories ensures the best flow possible.

Mark

Reply

Olivia Mitchell November 28, 2009 at 6:10 am

Welcome Mark – and thank you for adding your contribution.

Olivia

Reply

Public Speaking Course December 4, 2009 at 4:32 pm

The best way to keep your audiences attention is to be interesting. have a relevant story – does not have to be over the top, just relevant. Tell it from the heart.

Share a little of yourself and make yourself vulnerable. Don;t tell me how many kids you have or what you did on the weekend, tell me how you used to stuff your presentations up and what you learned. Be vulnerable and your audience will take you of the pedestal they have put you on (simply because you are standing in the front of the room) and they will start being interested in you. Then you have their attention.

Cheers

darren Fleming
Australia’s Corporate Speech Coach

Reply

Olivia Mitchell December 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Hi Darren

Thanks for stopping by and offering your insights, Olivia.

Reply

Mr. Self Development February 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm

All good points…thanks for sharing…

Reply

Keith Davis March 17, 2010 at 6:36 am

Hi Olivia
Some great ideas there.
Most powerful has to be “what’s in it for me?”
Give the audience a reason for listening, add some vocal variety and movement and plenty of humour.

Let them know that you want them to have a good time…. and perhaps they will!

Reply

rob@ Keynote speaking October 6, 2011 at 2:50 am

It’s always a two way thing, the topic should always be what you and your audience are interested in.

Reply

David Chung May 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Great post.

Reply

Tiah Tuiqaqa February 19, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for the heads up…Particularly agree with point 7…Trying to keep it short but ensuring nothing is left out as concentration of an individual can last for 10minutes if not shorter…

Reply

sharron March 12, 2013 at 9:13 pm

this is wonderful especially number seven. A brief and to the point presentation works miracles!

Reply

Mark Fitzgerald April 8, 2013 at 1:44 am

This posting sure has some legs to it since it started 3 1/2 years ago. One item of note that I will add is if the speaker is trying to “sell” something to which the audience is anticipated to “buy” at the end of the presentation, the speaker should incorporate a digital clock into their presentation that counts backwards the time limit of his/her presentation. This clock will then create a visual clue for the audience to pay attention, especially if the speaker says something like this at the beginning of his/her presentation, “…at approximately 3 minutes left in my presentation, I will divulge a secret way for you to grow your business exponentially.” I’ve seen this idea performed to perfection several times now and each time I have walked away smarter than the average businessperson.

Reply

Charles van Blommestein AC-S AL-S April 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

In every speech, use the 3-step-rule:
(1.) Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.
(2.) Tell ‘em.
(3.) Tell ‘em what you’ve just told ‘em.

Reply

Charles van Blommestein April 11, 2013 at 5:29 am

Storytelling is a wonderful attention-”catcher” when it is done right.

During my years of school-teaching, I engaged the students by explaining How-things-really-were in Europe during WW2; beyond the lessons they were being fed by the system.
My family still lives nearby the house where famed author, Anne Frank was imprisoned during that catastrophe.

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