100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People

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Excerpted from 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

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HOW TO GRAB AND HOLD PEOPLE’S ATTENTION

I have a recurring nightmare that goes like this: I am in a room giving a presentation. I feel passionately about the topic, and I know that I’ve put together a great presentation. But as the presentation moves along, I start losing control over the group. I notice that a few people aren’t listening to me. They are having their own conversation in the corner of the room. Then the inattention expands. More and more people stop listening and start talking to each other. Eventually I end up shouting over the conversations to try to be heard. People start leaving the room. No one is listening. I wake up suddenly in a panic and am very grateful to realize it was just a bad dream.
Luckily this nightmare has never become reality for me when I speak, but the fact that it is a recurring nightmare is a sign that losing the audience’s attention is something I’m anxious about.
Being able to grab and hold the attention of your audience is the sign of a great presenter. In this chapter we look at what psychology can tell us about how to do just that.

SUSTAINED ATTENTION LASTS ABOUT 10 MINUTES

Imagine you’re in a meeting and someone is presenting sales figures for the last 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 7 to 10 minutes at most. If you’re not interested in the topic or the presenter is particularly boring, then you’ll lose interest much faster—possibly you’ll tune out within 7 seconds instead of minutes.
If people have a short break, then they can start over with another 7- to 10-minute period, but 7 to 10 minutes 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 7-to-10-minute rule holds. These are meetings in which presenters come together to give short presentations in a very structured format. For an Ignite session, each presenter has 5 minutes to present 20 slides, or 15 seconds each. The slides are automatically advanced, so speakers have to 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. I recently attended an Ignite session that went for 1.5 hours and had 15 different speakers. One reason why Ignite and Pecha Kucha sessions work well is that each presentation is under the 7-minute mark. When you get a new presenter and new topic every 5 minutes, it is easier to pay attention.

Build In Transitions and Mini-Breaks

A typical presentation is longer than 7 to 10 minutes. Presentations are often an hour long. This means you have to find ways to make changes at least every 7 minutes in order to get people to pay attention. It’s easy, as the presenter, to forget that your audience’s attention may be waning. As the presenter, you are having a very different experience than your audience: You have adrenaline flowing because you are on stage, you are in the throes of a performance, and you are physically moving. The members of your audience, on the other hand, are sitting in chairs, and their minds are easily wandering.

6 ways to create mini-breaks

In order to keep attention, you have to introduce some kind of change at least every 7 minutes. There are many ways to do this, and they can be small and subtle. Here are some ideas:

  • 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 5-minute stretch break too.
  • Do something interactive. In my talks, I build in small exercises that can be done no matter how many people I’m presenting to. 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.
  • Ask the audience a question. If you take a minute to ask the audience a question, that will serve 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…”).
  • 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 7 minutes, as long as you are not continuously moving around (which makes you seem nervous).
  • Move on to a different topic. Stop and say, “Now, I want to talk about something that is very different.”
  • 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.

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