Despite all our technological advancements, life hacks, and self-improvement efforts, humans are still, well, human. We’re not machines capable of processing infinite information; we need breaks, distractions and changes of pace. Nowhere is this more evident than in a room full of people watching a presentation.
If you’ve ever given a presentation, you’ve witnessed the pattern. The first few minutes are rapt. People are hanging on your every word. Somewhere around 10 minutes, body posture starts to slump. People start crossing and uncrossing their legs or trailing off on their diligent note-taking. After 20 minutes, people are checking their email under the table or staring off into space. It’s frustrating to witness because the information at the end of your presentation is just as important as the beginning. But we’re all human. As much as we wish we could, we’re not yet capable of programming ourselves to engage indefinitely.
Wondering how you can best engage viewers and get your point across? Start with these five techniques for maximizing audience attention span during presentations.
Break Time Down into Units
Let’s say you have a lot of information to convey but want to avoid standing at the front of the room talking for 45 minutes straight. Breaking your total presentation into “attention units” (every 20 minutes or less) can help make the overall takeaways more digestible for the audience. Make sure it’s obvious to the audience when you’re transitioning so they can regroup before you launch into the second part of your discussion.
Cut Down on Cognitive Backlog
Like most people, you’ve probably watched a TED Talk (or a dozen) in your lifetime. Have you ever wondered why these talks are capped at 18 minutes? It’s part of what makes them so compelling—in addition to the talented speakers who deliver them. It’s really an effort to reduce cognitive backload, or the baggage the audience has to carry with them throughout a presentation. The longer your speech, the heavier the load you’re piling on your viewers. It’s a persuasive reason to keep things brief and punchy rather than lengthy and complicated.
Ask for Audience Involvement
Until you ask the audience for their participation, your presentation will maintain a distinct “you versus us” feel. In other words, you’re the teacher and your audience members are the students. The last thing you want is for them to wonder when recess is coming. It’s up to you to pull passive viewers into your presentation as active participants.
But how? An audience response system instantaneously collects crowd input via any web-enabled device, whether you’re presenting to five colleagues or 5,000 college students. The real-time poll results update as people respond, so people get the instant gratification of seeing how the group voted. If there are any surprising results, you can even use them as a catalyst for extemporaneous discussion.
Introduce a “Character”
Sometimes to really hit home your point, you have to step out of the spotlight. Consider the variety additional “characters” might add to your presentation. As one keynote speaker writes for Forbes, Steve Jobs was a master of sharing the stage with industry experts who could augment his delivery with their unique point of view.
Ramp Up Visual Impact
Maybe your words are getting the point across, but your overall presentation is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s time to take advantage of the boost that effective visuals provide. Consider font aesthetics: Size, color, arrangement, density, etc. Call upon appealing visual aids whenever possible. Interactive graphics and data visualization models are always a plus.
You know going into your presentation you’ll be battling the naturally limited attention span of humans. These five techniques will provide a framework for maximizing audience attention span by making your presentation more visually appealing, interactive and digestible.