Now that our lives have been swallowed whole by the constantly updating online world, keeping anyone’s constant, undivided attention can be a near-impossible task. Turning one’s phone off is an extreme measure reserved only for plane rides and funerals. Email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts demand more nurturing and attention than a 3-month old child. So when you’re tasked with keeping an audience’s undivided attention in a professional setting for over ten minutes, it’s no exaggeration when we say, you’ll have to work hard at it.
British bank Lloyds TSB did a study earlier this year on the cause of careless household accidents, and they discovered something that has some broad implications that reach far beyond house chores. According to the study, the average adult attention span has plunged from 12 minutes in 1998 to a measly 5 minutes in 2008. Participants attributed this mostly to stress and decision overload, but I suspect that our rapid-fire, Internet-driven society has exacerbated this trend.
Whatever the cause may be, it undoubtedly poses a new challenge to presenters.
Television commercials rapidly shrunk over the last decade, the average commercial condensing from 1 minute to between 15 and 30 seconds. This is something those of us giving presentations shouldn’t ignore, but the subject matter we’re presenting only allows us to condense so far, and sometimes we may not have a way around giving a 30+ minute presentation. In that case, here are a few strategies that must be used in order to retain the dwindled attention span of your audience.
Condense your slides
This doesn’t mean you should cut out information, but try to present more information orally, and reduce overloading your slides with information. Spend more time articulating your information aloud and less time forcing your audience to read slide after slide packed with information.
Break Up Your Presentation
Especially for a presentation that passes the 30-minute mark, a short break can make the all the difference between life and death by PowerPoint. The most natural way to go about this is often by posing a question to the audience or incorporating them in some other way, but if the setting allows for it, think of a creative activity that can illustrate your point while mixing things up for your audience. If possible, get your audience up and moving around a bit.
Lastly, and this is requires a bit of work on your part, so I won’t classify it as a “quick tip”–your presentation needs to be a story. It needs to have an arch.
There’s a reason why we can sit motionless in a dark movie theater for two hours and our eyes are never tempted to waver from the movie screen, but when we’re in a dull corporate presentation for more than 10 minutes we feel like our brains are melting. These movies have a great story arch. They build suspense and anticipation then release it, and this keeps us looking forward to what comes next.
Craft your presentation in a way that presents a problem (or, “what is”) then shows them the solution (“what could be”), then keep building and releasing tension this way. In this manner, you can have the audience eagerly awaiting for you to move to the next slide, not because it means you’re one slide closer to the presentation’s end, but because they are genuinely eager in what information you will present next.
“How To Incorporate Your Audience Into Your Presentation.” SlideGenius. July 26, 2013.