Attention-getting – The Evidence

In my last post I wrote about the attention-getting myth. I argued that the idea that you have to grab attention at the beginning of a presentation is a myth. Here’s the evidence to back that up.

Studies have been done measuring the attention levels of students in university lectures. Here’s the results of a study that asked students for their subjective assessment of their attention at different points in the lecture:

(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).

In another study students were asked to write summaries of the lectures they had attended. The researchers then tallied the bits of information reported according to which half-minute segment of the presentation they had ocurred in. Students recalled the most information from the first five minutes of the presentation. (Reference: Burns R A “Information Impact and Factors Affecting Recall” 1985 cited in Middendorf J and Kalish A “The Change-Up in Lectures” National Teaching and Learning Forum, 1996, 5, 2).

So now you’ve got evidence that you don’t have to wrack your brains to come up with some clever attention-grabber at the start.

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6 Comments

  1. Your evidence goes back three decades and doesn’t take into consideration how the people in audiences today–especially business audiences–have been trained to expect a quick, powerful hit of excitement immediately.

    You do a disservce to nervous speakers by telling them they don’t have to deliver an attention-getting opening. Giving them a pass reinforces the mistaken belief that it’s hard and takes too much time and will add to their anxiety.

    Tell them instead that this is easy to do and will not be the source of extreme anxiety. This is my approach to mentoring speakers at all levels.

    Skip the boring and deathly “Thank you for that nice introduction.” Put the word ‘you’ into the first sentence–‘you’ referring to the audience. Take the audience on a journey.

    Here are two easy, effective examples: “Imagine you are…” or “You should have been there…” Now you’ve grabbed their attention immediately and have a strong likelihood of keeping it.

    The whole point of an speech or presentation worth listening to is that it leads the audience to do things they would not have been able to do before they listened. Know your call-to-action and tie your opening to it. Then you’ll grab them and keep them for your entire presentation or speech.

  2. Thanks Susan for your comment – I have been searching for evidence which would clarify the issue of whether you have to have an attention-getting opening for some time. So I was delighted to find the 1978 reference. Yes, it’s old – but I found it in BrainRules which was published in March 2008. BrainRules is by John Medina who is a respected scientist (for more see http://www.brainrules.net/about-the-author). Do you have any evidence which supports the idea that we do have to have an attention-getting opening?

    I think we have differing approaches to helping nervous speakers. My experience is that for many people, nervousness is made worse by the pressure they put on themselves to “perform”. This approach is based on Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – for more information see http://www.effectivespeaking.co.nz/articles-overcome-your-fear-of-public-speaking.html.

    I’m also not arguing that you should not have an interesting and intriguing opening. Just that you don’t have to.

  3. I agree with Susan that an attention-getting opening is important and that, just because research shows people automatically pay attention in the first five minutes, it doesn’t mean those first five minutes shouldn’t be intriguing.

    However, I think we can kill two birds with one stone here. Using an opening that immediately involves the audience, for example, through asking questions, engages them while also immediately taking pressure off the speaker to perform.

    When the audience is allowed to participate and share their own knowledge and life experience, they are more engaged. The presentation becomes about them, not the nervous speaker.

  4. @Lisa. Thank you for your comment. I think it’s really interesting to discuss these issues with other presentation trainers. I started a response to your comment, but it got so long I decided to make it into a blogpost http://speakingaboutpresenting.com/2008/05/27/claim-your-space/.

    • I also think that we need to be careful about using research from academic environments and applying it to business presentations. The same goes for Richard E. Mayer’s research, which I cite and use, but which is all done in the classroom. Students are going to be tested on the class material! In most business presentations, you need to win the audience’s interest. And, having a sentence or two prepared in advance to get the audience’s attention gives the nervous presenter something easy to do without having to think about it. The rest is then easier.

      • Hi Ellen

        Yes, if you’re nervous having your first couple of sentences very clear in your head or written down is very helpful. I still find it helpful, after years of speaking, to be clear on my beginning sentence. See this post for more information on openings. Olivia

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