Presenting To Low Attention Spans

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On November 1, 2017  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

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Who has the lower attention span? You, or a goldfish?

Well, the answer may surprise you!

I said, the answer may surprise you! Hey! PAY ATTENTION!

A Microsoft study back in 2015 reckons our average attention span has dwindled to just 8 seconds (1 second below your joe average goldfish)

While those figures may have been dubiously sourced (ah the irony of a “study” on attention span that was spread without anyone paying attention to the lack of credibility), it’s hard to argue that since the inception of social media and smartphones our attention spans have reduced to the point that most of us have to make a concerted effort to pay attention for longer periods of time.


We’ve all Been There

You’re likely to experience this on a daily basis in a business context. Whether you’re giving a presentation and trying in vain to hold your audience’s attention, or listening to one and trying to resist the urge to check your phone for the 137th time only to realise that you’re focussing more on not checking your phone than you are on the presentation and are now at a complete loss as to what the presenter is on about.

We’ll take the first scenario and offer some advice on how to deliver a business presentation to people with low attention spans. Firstly though…


Why Are We Even Talking About This?

Given the mind-blowing rise of smartphone and social media use, it’s a real concern amongst many business people that their message, be it delivered via a presentation, Webex, document or email is simply not being heard. It’s hard to deliver valuable insights, business-building recommendations or critical updates if nobody is paying attention long enough to understand what is being said.

Recent research suggests that we interact with our phones 2,617 times on average a day. Considering you’re awake for roughly 16hrs a day, that equates to nearly 3 interactions a minute for the entire 16 hours.

Neuroscience consultant, Dr David Sousa explains that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s to blame, it’s the way that younger generations have grown up with technology and use it as an education tool. In short, the sheer simplicity of finding information online has led to a conclusion that “if something doesn’t interest them, within a few seconds, it’s acceptable to just move onto something else”.

While the article and Dr Sousa’s research focusses on children, it’s important to note that the millennial populace has experienced the shift to digital in a big way and many of the participants of your next presentation are likely to fit inside this age bracket.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not just in the business world. Earlier in the year, the NBA toyed with the idea of shortening game times to appeal to the dwindling attention spans of its millennial fans. Yikes.


More a Division of Attention Than a Loss?

Perhaps it’s more of a division of attention as opposed to a loss of attention span. With the incessant notifications and feelings of needing to be always connected, it’s likely that there’s simply too much to focus on at the one time. So we get overwhelmed and attempt to give small bits of focus to the competing attention seekers.

As a result, we abandon almost all focus in favour of a jack-of-all-trades approach and end up feeling under-informed in presentations and unfulfilled in our social media check-ups.

Daniel Goleman, a bestselling author on emotional and social intelligence, approaches this task when discussing the negative impact multitasking has on your attention span.

He explains “Attention tasks don’t really go on in parallel, as “multitasking” implies; instead they demand rapid switching from one thing to the other. And following every such switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration”. I Know myself how true this is. And I suspect you do too.


How Can We Stop Multitasking in Presentations?

In order to deliver a presentation that others what to listen to and which they will find valuable, you need as much undivided attention as possible. In order to achieve this, you need to be delivering presentations that are engaging and speak to the audience. Sure, you can try and control your audience by taking their phones etc, but that can’t work in all situations and can work against you in many.

Start Strong and Get to the Point

Starting your presentation right is the key to gaining audience engagement early. Consider kicking off your presentation by telling a story, asking the audience a  question, or sharing a mind-blowing statistic that relates to your message. This gains attention early on and can not only intrigue your audience but endear them to what you have to say.

Make an effort not to start straight off with an onslaught of information as this can be overwhelming and leave your audience dazed and confused.

Portray Confidence Through Body Language

Remember that your presentation starts before you even start speaking. While you’re waiting for the audience to take their seats and get settled, you don’t want to be standing there awkwardly and showing every sign of nervousness possible.

Make eye contact with people in the room, own your space at the front of the room and try to avoid defensive/nervous posture like crossing legs or arms.

Use Visual Aids to Increase Engagement

The use of visual aids can be critical to an engaging presentation. The key is to not overuse them, or rely on them too heavily. They’re there to complement your speech delivery and should demand attention when necessary to do so, but not distract when it’s no longer important to what you’re saying.

Approximately 60% of people are visual learners, and given our current reliance on social media, much of which is comprised of visual media, it’s not a stretch to understand that including unique or impactful visuals for your audience will help to distract them from their phones long enough to get your point across.  

Use Pauses

Nothing gets attention like silence. Remember when you were at school, whispering to the kid sitting next to you, only to realise that the droning monotonal voice of your teacher had ceased and you were left as the centre of attention?

Well, you’re not necessarily adding silence to catch people out, but you should add pauses for three reasons:

  1. It allows your audience some time to digest what you’ve just told them. It’s particularly important if you’re explaining a complex idea, or delivering results/data.
  2. The small silence can be deafening to an audience member, forcing them to look up from their phone/laptop and see why you’ve stopped speaking.
  3. Pausing creates a change in energy which you can use to emphasise key messages within your presentation.

While there’s an undoubtedly guilty pleasure in bringing attention to someone that isn’t paying attention, you should remember that getting worked up over every person that you think isn’t listening will merely derail your presentation and encourage other people to tune out. Take it in your stride and focus on delivering at your best.

Ask Questions

Depending on the type of presentation you’re giving, asking questions of the audience can be an engaging tactic. It helps build rapport with your listeners, it can identify a weakness in understanding so you can educate further, and it can dissuade fidgeters from busying themselves with distractions out of concern they may be called upon next.  

Know your Audience

This is probably the most important thing to consider! If you want to add value for an audience then you need to find out what they find valuable. After all, what’s interesting to you could be dull as dishwater for them.

So ask yourself who are you presenting to? What are their roles (what’s of interest to a sales team is probably different to what’s of interest to the IT team)? Why are they even attending the presentation? What do they need to hear?

How will your information be of benefit to them? The bottom line is that the more you know your audience the more you can craft your presentation, the language you use and the message you deliver so that it will be relevant and engaging for them.

That Was Longer Than 8 Seconds

Congratulations, you made it to the end of the article, proving that you have a longer attention span than the humble goldfish. If you’d like your audience to give you at least as much undivided attention as it took you to read this article, then get in touch with us today.  

Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

Read Bio

Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.