It’s no secret that audience members will inevitably slip in and out of attention during your presentation. It would be foolish to expect that every person will hear every word you say. But what do we really know about how audience members pay attention?
Today, we’ll explore scientific research in an effort to answer that question. J.W. Niemantsverdriet says, “Many presentations concern interesting work, but are nevertheless difficult to follow because the speaker unknowingly makes a number of presentation errors. By far the largest mistake is that a speaker does not realize how an audience listens.” When we come to understand natural attention peaks and valleys, we can design smarter presentations.
The Attention Curve
Professor and university researcher J.W. Niemantsverdriet acknowledged that the attention of the audience doesn’t maintain a consistent level throughout presentations. In fact, he proposed this diagram to depict what normally happens.
His research shows that most audience members will pay attention in the beginning of the presentation. However, toward the middle of the presentation, their attention “may well have dropped to around 10-20% of what it was at the start.”
This isn’t surprising. After all, we know that generally it’s easy to focus at the beginning of something. As we enter into a presentation our attention is intentional and conscious. The message is at the foreground. But as that newness wears off, our attention starts to fade. Suddenly we catch ourselves thinking about what sounds good for dinner or what our boss meant by a comment she made that morning. The presentation has moved to the background. You’ll notice the attention curve spikes again at the end of the presentation. Niemantsverdriet says, “At the end, many people start to listen again, particularly if you announce your conclusions, because they hope to take something away from the presentation.”
As designer Steffen Gorski reminds us, “the human brain has a limited supply of mental resources. . . Focused interactions take place at the center of attention, i.e. they receive the most resources in the distribution.” So the goal of the presenter is always to keep the presentation at the center of attention. But how?
Fighting the Attention Curve
To keep your audience’s attention, use this trick. Instead of thinking in terms of one longer presentation, structure your message into smaller sections. Essentially, you want to deliver several, smaller speeches. This allows you to cheat the attention curve by repeating it several times. If you have three beginnings and endings, you will retain the audience’s attention for a longer portion of your overall presentation. That one simple structure can lead to audience engagement that looks more like the diagram below.
In order for this trick to work, you need to make sure you that you use specific terms that normally signify a beginning or ending. Words like “next,” “now,” “to start with,” and “to begin” all help to perk interest to something new. Words like “in conclusion,” “to wrap up,” “to conclude,” and “finally” all tell the audience that you are close to ending. But this strategy works best if you pepper those throughout the presentation as you move between main points and sections. That hacks the normal attention curve so the audience sticks with you.
We love digging into presentation research and theory to offer you the best of the what the field has to offer. Find out how we can help with your next big presentation.