Keeping audience attention in presentations

That’s not a big blog title at all. Nope! 馃槈 Ah well, go big or go home, I guess.

There are a few things I need to look at here and I can only go over them at a top level in a blog but with a bit of luck you’ll be able to see how the principles apply and can figure things out for yourself a bit. Any way let’s get to it with six of my #TalkTactics for keeping your audience engaged and paying attention!

Importantly these are specific tactics for your presentation, not airy-fairly advice like “sound more interesting”! 馃檪

#1 Put the end of your presentation first

The traditional way of structuring a presentation is to specify the problem, then explain how we went about solving it and then giving the solution. It’s natural, and instinctive, because that’s the chronological order of events. Unfortunately for presenters, that’s not how audiences think.

The want the solution.

The won’t (arguably can’t!) care about the ‘how you did it’ or the ‘clever little details’ unless and until they’ve bought in to the solution. So put that early. Very early!

The first video takes a general point to illustrate things using my wife and cups of tea as the analogy. And why not, eh? Tea makes the world go around!

This second video takes the idea one step further and plays with it particularly in the context of research, academic or very technical presentations. Skip it if you want but it’s included here to show how this approach can work in even situations where people would normally say “hold on a minute..”

#2 Break your presentation into self-contained chunks

You, me and everyone has a limited (very limited!) period for how long we can concentrate on anything. Some presentation topics need longer than that though, so your audience won’t stay with you as you present. But there’s a tool I use a lot which means my audiences stay concentrating on me and what I’m saying for hours at a time! It’s simple (but simple doesn’t mean easy automatically, I know!).

This (somewhat messy presentation-video!) explains things a bit more, looking at how you should use ‘false endings’ to your presentation.

Over. And over.

Basically, whatever you do at the end of your presentations to start the wrapping up…. do that more often.

A personal confession here… ready?

I’ve been known to use a variation of this techniques my training courses where I say something like “we’re only five minutes from the coffee-break” and everyone perks up. At the end of the five minutes I say “Would you mind if I sneaked in just one more thing before the break?” Of course no one minds as I’ve got them onside. The result is that I get a five minute surge of concentration… and then another…

But I daren’t use a third time of course, as people would get wise to it. And besides, by then I need a cuppa myself!

#3 Showing your audience what to focus on

Sometimes audiences don’t concentrate on what you want them to concentrate on. They wander off to think about their own stuff. Sometimes that’s nothing to do with the presentation and other times it’s bits of your presentation that aren’t relevant or important.

And once your audience realises they’ve been off on a wild goose chase, they lose interest.

The trick to keeping them interested here is to keep them focused – specifically focussed on what you need them to look at. Be blatant… but don’t be too prepared. Well, no. Be as prepared as all heck, but make it look like your blatancy is ‘spur of the moment stuff’ so you don’t offend them.

If your audience thinks you’re assuming they’re not going to get it, they’ll “rebel”. If your blatancy looks improvised it loos like you’re being helpful instead.

If all else fails of course you can just put a dirty great arrow on the screen, but this looks a bit too prepared. If you’re got the skills and the software you can actually scribble on your slides live which is great, but you do really need to be on top of your game to do this. It’s one of the reasons I like running presentations from my iPad as it makes doing this as easy as possible – and it looks very cool the the audience, raising my credibility and – via the Oppenheimer Effect – the credibility of the content.

#4 Give your audience a choice of how your presentation goes

You know as well as I do that being passive is a short-cut to turning off. Being active and in control of your presentation is a great way to keep your audience engaged however. If your audience is picking your content interactively they’ve got no choice but to be interested.

After all they chose it!

This is a cool way I do it.

#5 Don’t spoon-feed your audience with a presentation that’s too slick

Audiences like to be spoon-fed. They’re lazy, just like you and me. They want a presentation that’s slick, in that it gives them what they need to know – preferably without them having to think. Thinking is hard work!

But think about it for a moment and cast your mind back to when you were at school. Sure, teachers taught, but they also made you work it out for yourself. Annoying as it was at the time they did it for a good reason.

Your audience might want a slick presentation where they don’t have to do too much thinking – or any at all – but making them work for it a bit is a tried-and-tested tool for getting things to stick in their minds.

A word of warning though. If you make your audience work toooooo hard they’ll give up, so your presentation is a balancing act.

#6 Use stories (don’t tell them!)

Well yeah. Everyone says “tell stories” but they’re wrong. Telling stories is a bit too self indulgent and doesn’t have the same feeling of discipline for me. You don’t just “show slides” do you. You design them. So why would you just ‘tell stories’?

Stories are a fabulous way to keep people interested, because they’ll add an emotional impact to the facts and figures (or whatever) you’re presenting about. What’s more, because they represent a form of pattern, they help people remember what you’re saying, because patterns stick much more easily.

Personally, the most common mistake I see with people throwing stories into their presentations is that they mess up their ‘story matrix’. They tell a story and wrap anything they might have that’s useful to say around it. But consider how much more powerful the alternative is – giving your content and wrapping your stories around that.

By the way, if you want to know more about how to collect stories to use in your presentations check out the 69stories challenge. And if you want to use stories but you’re something of a “reluctant storyteller” you can check out the reluctant storyteller starter pack.

There you go. Six of the tools I use myself to keep people listening. Obviously YMMV depending on your experience and the kind of presentations you make, but I’ve never (honestly!) seen a presentation that can’t use at least a few of them. Let me know your favourite?

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