5 Ways to Keep Your Audience Interested

Several years ago Business Week reported that the typical U.S. executive has an on-the-job attention span of six minutes.  According to the Northwestern School of Speech, the average attention span of an audience is nine seconds or shorter! Notice how long it takes for someone (everyone) attending your next meeting to serepticiously check their BlackBerry for the e-mail, BBM or instant message that announces its arrival by vibrating, successfully interrupting your audience’s ability to listen to you. Technology has rewired our brains so that we require more constant stimulation.  That means as speakers we need to present in short “scenes.”  In each scene there needs to be one major point or takeaway (a nugget).  And the way you deliver that major point lets the audience know that what you’re saying is important.

Just to make it harder for you to keep your audience engaged, the average presenter talks at a rate of 120 words per minute, but the human brain can receive input at a rate of from 400 to 600 words per minute.  The mind wanders during the idle cycles.  The answer isn’t to speak more quickly (though many try).

Your audience comes ready to listen and is typically fully engaged during your brief opening which means you’ve got their attention for the first few minutes as long as those minutes are well spent!  Interest returns again when the speaker says, “In summary,” or “To wrap this up…” The challenge is to grab hold of your audience at several points during the body of your speech or presentation.  If you think of your presentation as a conversation, it gets easier.  Don’t let your audience have a passive experience.  Anticipate creating multiple “new peaks” — a change in the way you’re connecting with your audience.  Here are five peaks to try:

  1. Build in open-ended questions to drive discussion.  For example, “Can anyone describe an example of…” or “How would we know if…”)
  2. Take a poll.  “Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced….”
  3. Break the monotous pace of slide after slide with bullets (slide alternatives to bullets is the topic for another blog) by telling a story that is relevant and compelling for your audience. Make sure there’s drama, suspense, protagonists and antagonists. And remember to shift your body language as you change from delivering slides to storytelling. By changing your delivery you signal to the audience that they’re about to experience something different and special.
  4. Introduce visual aids or props to make your point and whenever possible invite your audience to engage with the prop.
  5. Move! Step away from your laptop or the screen or the podium.  Move as if you want to get closer to your audience.

These are just five of the many ways you can actively hold onto your audience’s attention.  What others can you think of?  It’s not your audience’s responsibility to stay tuned in.  It’s yours.

One Response to “5 Ways to Keep Your Audience Interested”

  1. Great advice, Beryl, and eerily timely! I’m prepping to participate on a panel on social media and customer service in mid-March, and my greatest fear is putting the audience to sleep! Thanks for these reminders!

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