8 presentation hacks for holding attention

Presenting is a difficult business and presenters face numerous challenges if they are to be engaging, memorable and influential – the three key objectives of presentations.

Of these challenges, none is more critical – or more tricky – than holding the attention of the audience.

If you Google ‘audience attention span’, you will find endless dispiriting graphs of average attention, like this one from the Netherlands-based Syncat Academy for scientific leaders of the future.

Image result for Syncat Academy audience attention graph

You can see that practically everyone is listening at the start, hoping against hope that the talk will be inspiring and entertaining. Once that delusion is exposed, attention rapidly falls, plateauing at a very low level until the speaker signals that the end is near, the take-home messages are about to be delivered – and lunch is waiting outside.

Practically no one is listening

The problem is that the key content of the presentation is delivered in the mid-portion – when practically no one is listening.

There are three main contributory factors at work here:

  • Listening is hard work. We have short attention spans and we are very easily distracted
  • Audiences make instant judgements about speakers, which are hard to reverse
  • Most speakers don’t work hard enough to grab and hold our attention.

There is not a great deal that presenters can do to alter our innate distractability. But they can do a great deal to grab our attention at the outset (creating a favourable instant judgement) and to hold our attention for the duration of the presentation.

How to make your audience sit up and take notice

Here are 10 hacks guaranteed to make your audience sit up, take notice and keep listening.

1.Open by doing or saying something dramatic, surprising or different. I have offered plenty of ideas for attention-grabbing openings in two recent post on first impressions and attention-grabbers  The point is that if you start strong you will arrest the initial decline in attention. But if you start weak you won’t get a second chance.

2. Give the audience a compelling reason for listening immediately after your opening. Most of the speakers I coach are diligent about stating their purpose, usually with a sentence that starts: ‘I am here today to talk to you about…’. But that is a presenter-focused purpose not an audience-focused one. No one except your mother cares what you want to talk about. What they need to know is why it matters to them. You need to find a very good reason why your audience will benefit from listening to you and lose out if they don’t. And if you can’t find one you probably shouldn’t be giving the presentation.

3. Structure your talk so that it is easy to follow. Metaphorically speaking you are taking your audience on a journey and they need to know the ultimate destination, the various stops along the way and where they are at any one time. Set out a ‘menu’ of what you are going to cover and then work through the various elements in logical order, signposting your conclusions along the way and your moves from one topic to another. For more on structure seen my previous post on presentation architecture 

4. Use Aristotle’s ‘rhetorical triangle’. The ancient Greek philosopher described three ‘modes of persuasion’  that need to be expertly blended for optimal appeal to an audience. These are:

  • Ethos. This is about your authority or credibility as a speaker. You need to convince your audience at the outset that you have the right qualifications to be taken seriously;
  • Logos. This is about the strength of your argument and the facts and figures that support it.
  • Pathos. This is about your ability to connect with your audience and appeal to their emotions. You might think that this is icing on the cake, but actually neuroscience tells us that emotions play a primary role in memory and decision-making – which is obviously important if you want your audience to remember and act on what you said.

5. Build in regular changes to re-engage flagging attention. If you show an endless procession of very similar slides, your audience will tune out. To re-engage their attention you need a change of pace or process. Examples include:

  • Blanking the slides and telling a relevant story
  • Shifting from screen to flipchart
  • Getting the audience to talk to you – or each other
  • Showing a video
  • Offering a mini-break.

According to behavioural psychologist Susan M Weinschenk in her excellent book 100 Things Every Presenter needs to know about People truly sustained attention lasts 10 minutes at most, so ideally you should make a change every 7-10 minutes.

6. Don’t sentence your audience to ‘death by PowerPoint’.This is what an audience experiences when a presenter presents too many slides, stuffed with too many words, too much data and a wealth of complexity and detail.

Make your slides as simple as possible, keeping words – especially full sentences – to a minimum and harnessing the much greater power of strong visuals If ever you finds yourself apologising for a slide being ‘too busy’, simplify it or use another one. For more advice on avoiding Death by PowerPoint, see my earlier post on this topic

7. Employ all your non-verbal skills. What we say is only one pillar of our spoken communication, How we say it and the body language we use to support it are equally important in terms of engaging and influencing an audience.

  • Vocally, power and resonance, enthusiasm and variation in volume, pitch and pace will all help to hold your audience’s attention. Regular pauses are key to enabling them to catch up, process what you say and ready themselves to receive the next pearl of wisdom. Pausing feels dangerous – and some people never do it – but those who are brave enough to pause for several seconds are invariably rewarded with renewed attention.
  • Body language is about how you stand, move, gesture, use your full range of facial expressions and give good eye contact. Find a strong stance, move purposefully when there is a good reason, keep your hands free for gesturing, use your full range of facial expressions and share eye contact around the audience.

For more on non-verbals, see my previous posts on voice and body language  For now I would like to emphasise research findings that demonstrate that audience attention is positively linked with vocal variety and hand gestures.

8. Keep it short

  • No one ever complains that a presentation is too short, with insufficient slides! 20 minutes is said to be the ideal length of time for a presentation, which is why most TED talks , the great exemplars of effective presentation, come in at around 18 minutes. If your presentation has to be longer than this – as many do – build in regular breaks and/or changes, or chunk it into easily digested segments.


How Clearsay can help

Clearsay Communications works with business and thought leaders to develop and improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews, message development, storytelling, negotiations and meetings. To find out more about how we could help you go back to the Home Page.