If You Want Them to Pay Attention, You Have to Earn It

In today’s distracted world, one of the most precious commodities is your audience’s attention. When you have the floor, it can be very disconcerting to notice that most of the members of your audience seem to have their attention directed anywhere but at you. Many presenters try to counter this by asking people to turn off their phones or put their laptop screens down while they speak. Personally, I believe this is the wrong approach: it focuses on the needs of the presenter, and it’s a lazy shortcut. It works for a short time—until listeners start getting restless and distracted.

In my own training sessions I never ask people to turn off their devices, because I use them as feedback. My goal is to make what I am saying more important than what is on their screens, and I can instantly tell when I am losing someone’s attention.

In other words, I want to earn and keep their attention. Out of pure self-preservation, over twenty years of training I’ve learned and adapted many techniques which I’ve found to keep the audience’s attention.

Grab their attention

The first few seconds of any talk are prime cognitive real estate, site so you have to grab their attention right from the start. The best way to take advantage of this is to do something slightly counter to expectations.

Avoid opening amenities. If you’re giving a presentation or speech, they already know who you are from the agenda or the introduction. Don’t spend time introducing yourself or thanking the audience for being there. These opening amenities are like the fine print on an ad; no one pays attention to them.

Make it relevant. Your presentation has huge opportunity costs when you add up the value of the audience’s time investment. Step 1 is to have something relevant to say, but Step 2 is just as important—tell them right up front what’s in it for them to listen. The best story I’ve heard about this is the tax accountant who told his audience of senior executives: “I realize there’s nothing particularly interesting about tax law, but I can promise you this—ten minutes of listening just might keep you out of jail.”

Surprise them. We are lulled by the familiar, but we instantly notice something that breaks the pattern. Tell them something new or different. (But keep it relevant.)

Keep their attention

Use examples from their own experience, not yours. This will require some work on your part, but it’s worth it. They will understand you better and appreciate the effort.

Be concise. Despite your best efforts, the simple fact remains that we are all squeezed for time these days, especially in an economy in which companies are trying to do more with fewer people. Don’t presume on your listeners’ time an more than you have to. Figure out what they need to know to make their decision, and leave out all the stuff that you think is cool to know.

Front-load your message. During the Civil War, journalists learned to get the gist of their story into the first paragraph, because the telegraph lines could be taken over at any time by military traffic. Your audience’s attention can also be hijacked at any time, so get to your point quickly.

Simplify. People tune out if they find your message too difficult to follow. You may be trying to cram in too much information, or your slides may be too busy. When you overwhelm their capacity to keep up, they stop running after you.

Provide structure. Think of what happens when you’re on hold on the phone or in a long line. When you don’t know how much longer it’s going to be, it can get boring very fast. Let them know where you are in the talk to keep them involved and motivated to follow you. (“Which brings me to my third point… There are three main reasons that…”)

Get them involved

Use their names. People are always attuned to their own names. It’s called the cocktail party effect. You can be talking to someone, ignoring all the conversations around you, and still hear if someone mentions your name from across the room. Plus, if they know they are going to be called on, they are more apt to stay alert.

Ask questions. Questions beggar an answer, so they are an excellent way to keep people fixed onto your topic. You can ask questions of the general group, or you can occasionally call on individuals, which will really maintain their alertness.

Make them think. I recently saw a presentation about internal cost allocation, of all things, that actually kept everyone engaged because the presenter structured it as a mystery and everyone was trying to be the first to figure out the answer.

Make it compelling

Tell stories. Stories have narrative movement; listeners are compelled to stay with them to see how they end. You see it all the time on the evening news: a piece about unemployment, for example, will feature a struggling family trying to make ends meet. Just make sure they are relevant and short.

Pay attention to your listeners. Don’t get so focused on getting out the content, or in looking at your own slides, that you don’t watch the audience carefully. Eye contact will enable you to monitor reactions and adjust as needed if you see people are losing the thread or being distracted.

Variety. For longer presentations, don’t get stuck into a predictable pattern. This applies to your voice, your slides (e.g. endless bullet lists), your evidence, etc. Move around once in a while.

Vivid imagery. Engage your listeners’ imagination with vivid imagery, whether it’s actual visuals on slides or verbal imagery.

Talk to them, not at them. It’s still a conversation. When people feel like they’re in an actual conversation with another person, it’s personal.

P.S. The picture above was not taken at one of my training sessions. (I think)

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1 Comment
  • More great stuff, Jack – fantastic work!

    As someone who is interested in both business excellence and life satisfaction, I always find myself torn when reading information on how to get and keep people’s attention. On one hand, the reality is that we must often focus on the tips you mention above because (in part) of the shortening of attention spans. On the other hand, I think a case can be made that many of the practices that keep people’s attention can contribute to poor attention spans (which can lead to poorer decisions, less life satisfaction and, perhaps, rising levels of ADD).

    For example, I’ve seen people simplify complex topics in an effort to keep people’s attention to the point where the presentation actually seems to serve to create a feeling of “faux understanding” of a topic (which leads to even less understanding than before the presentation – it’s often more dangerous to think one knows something than to understand that one does not). For example, it seems to me that many presentations on how to be a great leader or deal with “difficult people” can simplify processes until they become worthless platitudes that can actually serve to damage the ability to truly understand the complex dynamics that occur within and between people.

    As I reflect upon your good article above, perhaps a solution could be an introduction to this very issue that conforms to your formula at first (e.g., “Today’s discussion is about some very complex ideas that will challenge you and that may be difficult for you to grasp easily – but if you stay focused on this material, the outcome could be an ability to think much more clearly about yourself, your business and the world around you) – then moves into the more complex, challenging issues.

    I’m pondering this because I think that almost all of the personal and organizational problems that I have encountered are the result of very complex factors that require focused attention on the part of many people across quite long periods of time. At the same time, many of the “experts” who seek to solve these issues seem to direct people away from the tough long-term cognitive and emotional work that it can take to alleviate them. I often use the metaphor of fitness when discussing this topic with others. How silly would it be if some fitness expert tried to tell us that watching a 60 minute presentation or reading a 200 page book every month could help us to be in fantastic shape – instead of giving us the hard facts about the many barriers to persistence with a fitness routine and how complex solutions can be created by people with the focus and commitment to do so?

    I know I’m preaching to the choir with you on this topic – and that you do not sacrifice the message for the sake of attention maintenance – but I think that it may be that many who over-emphasize how important it is to keep people’s attention (as though we expect them to be distracted children rather than reminding them that they can be focused adults who can deal with complex thoughts and emotions over the long haul) may be promoting this sort of a myth when it comes to personal or organizational change.

    Well, there’s my rant of the day, Jack. I’d apologize for the length, but I’m betting that very few people read past my first paragraph, anyway. 🙂 Seriously, very solid stuff on attention-grabbing and maintenance – I’m going to use it to think about how to promote self-directed attention and maintenance in my audiences.

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