Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224 cited by John Medina in Brain Rules

Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224 cited by John Medina in Brain Rules

Keeping audience attention is more important and more difficult than grabbing audience attention. A reader emailed me:

“What can I do to keep the audience’s attention through the whole of my presentation. There are always people who don’t seem to be listening.”

A one-way presentation is one of the worst possible ways of transferring information from person to person. It requires discipline and effort to simply sit and listen passively to someone speak for any length of time.  Make it easier for your audience by following these seven guidelines:

[Warning: The first three guidelines require that you know your audience – do the work to find out what your audience is interested in, their background knowledge, level of experience etc.]

1. Talk about something your audience is interested in

You may think this is obvious and that you’d never make this mistake. But I see many otherwise intelligent people talk about what they’re interested in rather than what the audience is interested in.

Last week, a business banking specialist started designing a presentation he was planning to deliver to accountancy firms in his city. Most of his talk was about the internal organisational changes they had made in their team which would allow the team to service their clients better. But do his audience care about the internal organisational changes? No. His talk should have been focused on the services they offered to clients.

If you’re speaking at a conference, people come to your session because of the synopsis – that’s what they’re interested in. Don’t change it just because it suits you. Many years ago, I saw one of New Zealand’s most successful professional speakers make this mistake. Her session was advertised as being on email marketing. But, she’d just got entranced by Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for websites. She announced at the start that she didn’t want to talk about email marketing, but about SEO. The she asked how many people in the audience had a website. About 5 people out of 100 put their hands up. You’d think she’d change tack – but no. 95 people were subjected to a talk on a subject they had no interest in.

2. Tell them why they should listen

Before each of the presentations skills courses we run, we ask each participant to fill in an online questionnaire. The most critical question is this:

“How important are presentation skills to you?”

They answer by clicking on range of multichoice answers from “It’s vitally important” to “It’s not that important”. If a number of participants click on “It’s not that important” then we know we have to start the course by demonstrating the benefits of developing presentation skills. I start by telling my story of how developing presentation skills has enriched my career. Then Tony tells of speaking at his father’s funeral and the feeling of completion that that gave him. Now they’ve got a reason to listen.

So if your audience don’t have an obvious reason to be interested, tell them why they should bother listening to you. This can be challenging. I’ve had email discussions with a number of readers who present on topics such as health and safety issues or environmental regulations. The audience have to be there, but they have no intrinsic interest in the topic. The solution is to tell them why they should care. If you’re speaking on health and safety, tell them stories of people injured in your workplace and the consequences it had for them. I still remember being an audience member in a presentation on Occupational Overuse Syndrome. The speaker had suffered from it herself and described how she’d been unable to brush her own hair.

And if you can’t find a reason why they should listen – don’t give the presentation!

3. Don’t make it too easy or too hard

You’ve probably heard of the concept of “flow” developed by Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of being where you are fully engaged and fulfilled in what you’re doing. You lose track of time, your mind never wanders. When you describe a speaker as “compelling” that’s probably because you were in a state of flow. The ultimate goal is to have your audience in a state of flow (h/t to Chris Atherton and her post When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule is attention.)

There are many factors to achieve that nirvana, but one of the prerequisites for flow to occur is for the task to be not too easy and not too hard. When listening to a presentation, the main task is thinking. The thinking task you set has to have just the right level of challenge for the particular audience you’re speaking to. The level of challenge required will differ for different audiences – their confidence in the topic and their background knowledge being critical factors.

Listening to somebody talk through a series of bullet points does not require challenging thinking. So it gets boring very quickly.

Conversely, if the speaker puts up a complicated flow chart and dives right into the detail without explaining what it’s about, the thinking task will be too challenging. Daniel Willingham, in his book “Why students don’t like school” describes doing just this (as an experiment):

After about 15 seconds I stopped and said to the audience, “Anyone who is still listening to me, please raise your hand.” One person did.

So audit every minute of your presentation in terms of what is the thinking task that you’re asking your audience to engage in. Is it too easy or too hard?

4. “Change grabs attention”

The heading comes from Daniel Willingham’s book that I’ve quoted above (yes, it’s what I’m reading at the moment).

We notice change. You notice the hum of the air-conditioner when it comes on and when it goes off – but not in between. You can use this natural human propensity to retrieve your audience’s attention.

There are macro changes and there are micro changes:


  1. Change the visual medium eg: from slides to flipchart and back again
  2. Change the physical state of the audience eg: from sitting around a table to standing around a flipchart
  3. Change the location of the room that you present from eg: from the front to the back
  4. Change the activity your audience is engaged in eg: from listening to you to discussing a problem with their neighbour
  5. Change presenters
  6. Change topics.


  1. Make the edges between subtopics in your presentation clear eg: “So that’s the problem we’re trying to fix, let’s look now at what some of the options are.” If somebody has mentally checked out this gives them a cue to check back in again.
  2. Show a short video
  3. Use silence before and after critical statements
  4. Change your style of delivery according to the content. For instance when you’re making statements of fact, use a measured deliberate tone and stand still. When you tell a story, speed up, get chatty and move around.

As a guide, I use a macro-change at least every 10 minutes, and micro-changes continuously.

5. Tell stories

Every presentation expert extolls the power of stories. There’s evidence that people are hard-wired to listen to stories (see my post Are our brains wired to enjoy stories). When you say “ I’ll tell you a story about…” your audience will perk up. Your stories should of course reinforce the point you’re making. Take a look at your presentation from the point of view of stories. Are they sprinkled throughout your presentation – or bunched together? Sprinkle them out for best effect.

For more strategic insights into when and where to tell stories see When to tell a story and what story to tell.

You can also exploit the power of story to keep attention by structuring your whole presentation using a story structure – I’ll write more on this later (meanwhile if you know of any good links to this concept please do post them in the comments).

6. Have frequent breaks

Build in frequent breaks, but if you see people starting to flag in their attention suggest a “microbreak” for 1-2 minutes where people people can refresh their drinks and have a walk around. Moving is the most effective way of reviving people at risk of dozing off.

7. Make it short

The most effective way of keeping your audience’s attention is not to go on for too long.

For more great points on keeping audience attention see Chris Atherton’s post When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule is attention.

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