Back when I had hair, a six-pack stomach, and when slide rulers were cool (25+ years ago), I took a sabbatical from my career as a cargo ship engineer officer and drove around the coast of Australia with a friend for six months. We traveled in a very old Chrysler Valiant, a six cylinder workhorse of a car that brought us safely around the coast of Australia. We mostly camped in the National Parks around the country, and while traveling through Northern Australia, we worked for a short time on a small banana plantation. The plantation we were working on was adjacent to an estuary where salt-water crocodiles up to 30 ft. long were known to live.
The place where we put our tent was about 200 feet from the water in a very scenic spot overlooking the water. The night we pitched our tent, the owner of the banana plantation brought a cow on a rope. He hammered a thick wooden post into the ground about 150 ft. from the water and tied the cow to it with a 5 ft. length of rope. With a smile on his face, he said that it was just a precaution in case a crocodile got some ideas to travel on land and cause trouble. It did not take me too long to work out that “trouble” meant me or my friend becoming a late night snack. The farmer explained that the salt water crocodiles have great focus and excellent concentration. He said that research has shown that the first day they concentrate on your movements, the second day they make a plan, and the third day they implement the plan and try and get you. He then explained that if we should wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the cow getting attacked, it would be a really good idea to “high-tail-it” out of there. So there we were, protected from highly focused crocodiles by a cow and a tiny Swiss Army Knife I had in my pocket. Don’t you love the Australians and their happy-go-lucky simplistic way of thinking and their saying, “She’ll be alright mate!”
Fast forward 25 years, and the subject of focus and concentration of human beings rather than crocodiles is on my mind. The challenges of crocodiles with their three day concentration and focused plan of attack is behind me, but now as a public speaker and trainer I have to deal with the challenges of humans that are unfortunately on the other end of the concentration scale. Research shows that the typical human being has an attention span somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. I am sure we can all relate to our minds wandering during meetings and presentations.
Imagine a dysfunctional meeting. The presenter is droning on and on, reading words from his PowerPoint slides, and guiding the audience with his laser pointer. Some people are sneaking a peak at their laptops, the “Crackberry addicts” are holding their devices by their crotches thinking that nobody can see that they are getting their e-mail “fix”. The younger people are pecking away at high speed on tiny electronic keyboards, twittering or texting information to friends, coworkers, and any extraterrestrial aliens that may be checking the planet for signs of life! Wouldn’t it be great if people could be “in the moment” for three days like crocodiles rather than 5 to 10 minutes as humans?
As a presenter, I learned a long time ago that there are methods that you absolutely need to use to keep an audiences attention whether you are delivering a 20 minute presentation or a 2 day workshop.
Considerations for keeping your audience engaged:
1. When audience members are entering the room, welcome them, talk with them, and build a rapport.
2. At the beginning of your presentation, ask people to refrain from using laptops, Blackberries, etc. Make the suggestion with humor, for example: “Anyone caught e-mailing, texting, or Tweeting will be invited to sing the national anthem!”
3. Keep side conversations under control. Do not allow others to disrupt the presentation by chatting.
4. Engage the audience as soon as possible, use rhetorical questions, shock statements, questions, and stories
5. Open with impact – this is your first big opportunity to draw the audience into your presentation (click this link to see my previous article on introductions and presentation openings).
6. Change your presentation method frequently using methods such as:
• High quality uncluttered PowerPoint slides
• Move to a flip chart to provide a more detailed explanation of a point
• Conduct a question and answer session to engage the audience
• Form a break-out session. Get groups working on a problem and identify group leaders who will present back to the class
• Get one person to give a demonstration to highlight a point
• Get everyone involved in an exercise that involves individual problem solving
• Tell a short story that relates to the point and make sure it is one that the audience can relate to
• Put humor and other entertainment in your presentation even if it is a technical presentation
• Use short videos and clear illustrative pictures to get your point across
• Walk into the audience to engage them, ask them questions, and get their point of view.
7. Don’t overly criticize wrong answers or opinions otherwise you may not get any more feedback.
8. Tell the audience that there are going to be quiz’s during and after the presentation. This will help people focus and retain information.
9. If you are conducting a training session you can use an exercise such as getting everyone in the room into a circle, they throw a light fuzzy ball to each other. As each person catches the ball they have to say one thing that they have learned so far. Consider what other “games” are appropriate for your presentation and the audience.
10. Use simple handouts that require them to fill in missing words in short sentences. When people write down information it keeps them engaged and also has the added benefit of helping them remember the information.
11. Give out prizes to people who give terrific answers, get the room in competition mode. Remember, people at all levels of an organization love to win. Maximize positive feedback.
12. Break up the usual social “cliques” and form different groups either randomly or using a numbering system. This may also help reduce the potential for distracting social side conversations. The members of the groups can be changed every few hours if necessary.
13. Use stories and vignettes frequently to bring your information into perspective.
14. Get audience members to share their stories.
15. Keep the presentation conversational.
16. Use humor that is appropriate to the occasion and to the audience.
17. Relate to the audiences needs and experiences and provide value.
18. Be personable and energetic.
19. Know your audience (what are their needs, what are their concerns, customize your material).
20. What’s in it for them? (ask yourself this question at each section of your presentation)
21. Make sure you provide adequate bathroom breaks.
22. Make sure you know how to control the temperature in the room in case it starts to heat up and make people drowsy (or too cold and cause people to lose focus).
23. Keep your PowerPoint slides uncluttered – include relatable pictures and clear headlines in 40+ font size as much as possible.
24. Maximize your eye contact with your audience – learn how to do it effectively.
25. Use vocal variety and project your voice to the level that everyone in the room can clearly hear your voice. If someone asks a question, repeat the question back to the audience if the voice is not audible to the whole group.
26. Use gestures to illuminate your points and stories.
27. Use purposeful movement to enhance your presentation content.
28. Determine if your handouts and other reading material can be handed out afterwards so that people are not reading ahead during your presentation.
29. Use first names as much as possible (use tent cards or other types of name tags if you cannot remember the names).