The Art of Recapturing Audience Attention During a Presentation

As a presenter, it can be quite daunting to hear that the average adult has an attention span of just five minutes by some estimates. No matter how carefully you’ve prepared that 20-, 30- or 45-minute speech, it’s safe to assume most people will forget a majority of what you say.

This realization is bittersweet. On one hand, not every single thing you say during your speech has to be profound. It’s only natural for presentations to ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re setting the scene and sometimes you’re delivering the highly quotable takeaway message. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to put so much time and effort into creating a presentation that will resonate so minimally with its audience.

One thing speakers can do to maximize the effectiveness of their presentation is incorporate tactics for intentionally recapturing audience attention. If you know it will wander, it’s wise to anticipate this by building moments into your presentation to pull people back into the flow.

Create Strategic Checkpoints

One way to build rapport with your audience is to check in periodically. For example, you may add two of these “checkpoints” to a 30-minute presentation. You may even ask your audience to text or tweet in questions and comments during this time so you can address them before moving on. At the very least, give your audience 30 seconds or one minute to regroup before proceeding. Most audience members will appreciate the consideration.

You could even make the checkpoints more interesting or less obvious by giving your audience a surprise quiz and then reward those who answer correctly. Mind you, this calls for more information regarding the background of your audience. There are rewards that will be cherished by managers of a company and there are those that will be valued by mere employees. You could prepare a small quiz based on the information you’ll already have supplied during a former segment of the presentation or you could prepare questions to ask as a way of introducing the next thing you’ll be presenting. Either way, provided the rewards you are giving are valuable (most people don’t mind some extra cash) your audience won’t be able to help being attentive to what you are saying. 

Catch Your Audience Off Guard

When most people attend a presentation, they expect to leave feeling informed or engaged—but not necessarily surprised. Speakers can use the element of surprise to their advantage, incorporating cool presentation ideas to combat forgetfulness. Humans tend to grasp onto things that diverge from their expectations more than conform, which means catching your audience off guard encourages everyone in attendance to refocus. Your strategy could involve everything from gamification of your presentation to hosting an interactive Q&A session midway through the session.

Long story short: Presenters willing to deviate from the norm in a productive way have a better chance of boosting audience retention. Why? Because people sit up a little straighter and listen a little harder when something unexpected occurs.

Furthermore, the human brain works based on impressions. These impressions can be either positive or negative. By deviating from the norm, a presenter will have impressed the audience – hopefully in a positive way – therefore, making it easier for their brains to retain and recall the information provided during the presentation. Think about it, the things that you have a hard time forgetting were either extremely tragic or extremely pleasing. Also, some of the things you never forget are the weirdest things you’ve ever experienced, or the first time something completely unexpected happened. By deviating from the norm, you’ll be in a way creating one of these moments for your audience and they will reward you by retaining the information you are feeding them.

Combine Data with Anecdotal Evidence

As Fast Company writes, “Presentations have evolved into a big data dump.” On one hand, presenters want to convey important information and establish their credibility. On the other, human brains are not equipped to hold endless streams of statistics, facts, and takeaways.

Choose your data points carefully, remaining cognizant of your audience’s inherent limits on truly absorbing hard data. When you’re planning your presentation, assess which are absolutely imperative to keep and which you can cut without losing any of the core value of your presentation. Then format data in a visual way so people don’t feel bombarded by written and spoken facts alone. The use of charts, diagrams, images, and alternative illustrations is invaluable in this regard. It’s one of the reasons PowerPoint and alternative slideshow presentation software seem like graphic design software. Their developers understand that the use of visuals is considerably more impressive when it comes to the retention or information compared to plain text.

It also helps to bring data to life by incorporating memorable anecdotes and metaphors. Incorporating storytelling elements into your presentation helps breathe life into it. For example, you may want to “convert” hard data to relatable, real-life terms so it jumps off the slide for your audience. Anecdotes are often a source of much-needed “interest, humor or emphasis,” even during presentations centered around somewhat cut-and-dry topics. Presenting strange or new information to the audience in a manner that they can identify with from a personal level considerably helps with the retention of the fresh information.

When in doubt, put yourself in your viewers’ shoes. It’s simply unrealistic to expect a group of people to follow along for long, unbroken expanses of time. Armed with this knowledge, you can craft your presentation to resonate and recapture your audience’s attention at key points throughout. Designing your presentation this way benefits both you and your audience; you’ll have an easier time during the presentation and your audience will remember you for being both interesting and informative.

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