Getting longer attention in your presentations

I love the TES – the articles are an easy read but written by people who know what they’re doing. Admittedly a lot of it isn’t relevant to making presentations (because it’s a magazine for teachers!) but they do cover a lot of stuff on how to get information from one place to another – specifically into your audience’s heads.聽 After all, that’s the core of teaching.

A goldfish - A longer attention span than presentation audiences?The edition for 17th of October, 2017, has a few handy articles – but the one I want to look at is Alex Quigley’s exploration of how to get people to concentrate for longer. As Alex points out, there are claims about how long people can concentrate for which range from a mere 8 seconds up to 20 minutes. My experience, however, is that it’s possible to get people to concentrate for 45 minutes at a time reasonably well and even up to 90 minutes at a level that’s good enough for them to take things on board.

So what is it that makes the difference?

Let’s talk about computer games design

The long and the short of how these things are structured is to get you addicted and keep you playing – in other words to get you hooked and keep you concentrating on what you’re doing. Of course there’s an advantage here, because slaughtering evil aliens and/or undead is fun, but as a presenter you’ve got another advantage… specifically that your content is worthwhile. What computer games designers hook into is what Quigley observes by people being “motivated by goals and a sense of purpose”. When the work to achieve those goes is too hard we lose interest. When the work needed to achieve those goals is too easy to quickly lose interest.

Presentation process - small chunks please!Presentations therefore need to present audiences with goals (challenges) which are worthwhile and which are just hard enough to achieve to keep us interested, but not so hard that we get disillusioned. What that means to presenters, for example, is that the habit of building and building and building to a spectacular “big finish” at the end can backfire. People need wins along the way, not one bit win at the end: by then it’s too late and they’ve lost their motivation to concentrate.

There’s another problem too – by having one ‘big win’ at the end of your presentation you inevitably and cumulatively build the amount of information your audience has to hold in their heads as the presentation goes on. The next section on Working Memory explains why that’s a bad idea.

Action points:

  • Split your presentation up into ‘chapters’, with a ‘win’ at the end of each one.
  • And make sure that you’re in the Goldilocks Zone of challenge – neither too hard or too easy.

Now let’s talk about Working Memory

Working Memory is the short-term jotter-pad of our brains where we hold information we’re not going to need in the future. For example, if you were asked to multiply two numbers, and the third was how much you were going to get paid, you could very well find yourself not “bothering” to remember the initial two figures, only recalling and reporting the third (fair enough!).

What’s this got to do with presentations? Consider this situation, if you’re introducing two new terms (jargon or acronyms or concepts) and then using them to make an argument, you’re probably overloading your audience’s Working Memory, because the act of remembering the two new terms fills them up, leaving them no ‘head space’ spare to then use the terms.

It’s particularly important if the information is new – and if it’s complicated. To be honest, if your content isn’t new to your audience I’m not sure why you’re making a presentation, so you’re on the back foot there straight away! 馃檪聽 聽A simple example will illustrate the complicated thing.聽 Multiplying 9 by 4 should be okay for most of us but what about A calculatorPresentation audiences need spare Working Memory94 times 13?聽 聽Much harder! Why? Because all the many different things we have to hold in our heads becomes too much very quickly. If you’re not convinced, try multiplying 94.2 and 13.4 and see how you do.

What many of us do at that point is either give up, or resort to calculators. Or if we’re absolutely desperate to do the sum, we break it down into component parts, reducing the load in our heads at any given time. For example, if you were to be tasked with聽 8 * 5 * 9 * 4 you might first multiply 8 and 5, forget that those numbers individually every existed and then multiply (product-of-8-and-5) by nine.聽 Then you forget the nine and the聽product-of-8-and-5 but instead remember the new number and multiply that by 4.

So it is with presentations!

If you give your audience too much information at once they can’t handle it all and, sadly, forget all of it. Not just the excess over what their capacity is… all of it. Instead, you need to give them the information in segments, step by step so that they can finish processing one bit before you give them the next.

Interruptions are a killer here. Unlike long processes, which can be re-started from where they were interrupted with some damage to performance/productivity, Working Memory is uniquely fragile. If something interrupts your audience while they’re putting something to their Working Memory, then it’s lost. Gone. Never there. The only thing for them to do is start again.

And, of course, the chances of that happening are pretty slim, especially if you’ve already moved on!

What that means for you as a presenter is that you need to think carefully about anything that can distract people at key moments. The obvious things to look at are external interruptions such as background noise – but what about the internal ones you add?

  • Is that animation necessary at this point?聽 (Hint, probably not!)
  • Now matter how clever/funny your one line witticism is does it get in the way of things going to Working Memory?
  • Is changing slide right now the best time to do it?

You probably get the idea

[one_half padding=”5px 10px 5px 10px”] Is a gross analogy going to be helpful here?聽 If you’re feeding someone, let them chew and swallow one mouthful before feeding them the next. If you don’t they’ll choke and be able to swallow nothing![/one_half]

Action points:

  • If you’re going to introduce new terminology or ideas, make sure everyone has completely and totally ‘got it’ before you move on to using that terminology; and
  • break down tasks/ideas concepts into smaller and smaaaalllllerrrrr chunks until they’re digestible
  • take a long, hard look at anything that cuts into your audience’s process of putting things into their Working Memory.

It’s not rocket science but when we’re in the grip of the curse of the expert it’s easy to forget.

Parting thoughts

Hopefully you should be able to see how those two ideas fit together nicely! Each ‘chapter’ should wrap up with a win and shouldn’t add too much to the cumulative Working Memory load of your audience.

Oh, and if you want to know a bit more, and look at how to order the ‘chapters’ you break your presentations into, have a listen to smallSimon’s video on some more of the research.


  1. Great article. Very straightforward but key information and easy to apply.

    • Simon Raybould

      Thanks Lyn – good to hear that from a fellow pro!

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