What is the length of an audience’s attention span?

The answer may surprise you. Good thing, the author shares ways in which speakers can command the audience’s attention.

Imagine you’re in a meeting and someone is presenting sales figures for the previous quarter.

How long can she hold your attention?

If the topic is of interest to you, and she is a good presenter, you can focus on the presentation for seven to 10 minutes at most. If you’re not interested in the topic, or the presenter is particularly boring, you’ll lose interest much faster—possibly you’ll tune out within seven seconds instead of minutes.

If people have a short break, they can start over with another seven- to 10-minute period, but it is the longest block of time they will pay attention to any one presentation.

Why “Ignite!” and Pecha Kucha are so popular

If you’ve ever been to an “Ignite!” or Pecha Kucha presentation “jam,” you would likely agree that the seven-to-10-minute rule holds.

These are meetings in which presenters come together to give short presentations in a structured format. For an Ignite session, each presenter has five minutes to present 20 slides, or 15 seconds each. The slides are automatically advanced, so speakers must live by the rules. Pecha Kucha presentations are similar; they have 20 slides that display for 20 seconds each.

At these events, there is a succession of presentations by different speakers. Recently, I attended an Ignite session that lasted an hour and a half and had 15 different speakers. One reason why Ignite and Pecha Kucha sessions work well is that each presentation is under the seven-minute mark. When you get a new presenter and new topic every five minutes, it’s easier to pay attention.

Build in transitions and mini-breaks

A typical presentation is longer than seven to 10 minutes. Presentations are often an hour long. This means you have to find ways to make changes at least every seven minutes to get people to pay attention.

As the presenter, it’s easy to forget that your audience’s attention may be waning. You are having a very different experience than your audience: Adrenaline is flowing because you’re on stage, in the throes of a performance, moving around. The members of your audience, on the other hand, are sitting in chairs, where their minds can easily wandering.

6 ways to create mini-breaks

To keep attention, you have to introduce some kind of change at least every seven minutes. There are many ways to do this, and they can be small and subtle. Here are some ideas:

1. Have a mini-break. If your session is longer than 60 minutes, you need to have some kind of break. This doesn’t have to be a long, 20-minute break. You can use a five-minute stretch break, too.

2. Do something interactive. In my talks, I build in small exercises that can be done no matter the size of the audience. For example, during one of my presentations, I show a picture of an old-fashioned faucet with two handles, one for hot water and one for cold water. I ask the audience to write down which way they would turn the handles to get lukewarm water to come out of the faucet. Then we go through all the possibilities (there are four ways to turn the handles), and I ask for a show of hands for each method. I use the results to introduce the next topic, which is about mental models.

3. Ask the audience a question. Take a minute to ask the audience a question serves as a break. If it’s a large group, you can ask questions that require only a show of hands (“How many of you have…”).

4. Move to a different position. Rather than pacing around the front of the room or on the stage, stay in one area for a few minutes and then walk to a different place and speak from there.

You can do this more often than every seven minutes, as long as you are not continuously moving around (which makes you seem nervous).

5. Move on to a different topic. Stop and say, “Now, I want to talk about something that is very different.”

6. Tell a story. Stories grab attention instantly. Sprinkle interesting stories throughout your presentation. Make sure the stories are short and relevant to the topic at hand.

This is part four of our five-part series, The Psychology of Public Speaking that is running on the Mr. Media Training blog. All five posts in this series are excerpted from Susan Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People. You can find the soft cover here and the Kindle edition here.

Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of PearsonEducation, Inc. and New Riders.

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