How To Keep Audience Attention

Want to keep your audience’s attention beyond the first few minutes of your speech or presentation? These three suggestions can help you keep them engaged all the way to the end.
Business leaders often ask me this: “How can I sustain the audience’s attention throughout my speech?”

They go on to say: “Most audiences will be courteous enough to give the speaker a fair chance by listening closely for the first few minutes. Yet after that, I see their attention weakening. One person might be ignoring the host’s instructions about texting. Another is looking out the window. A third one is writing something, and I don’t think she is taking notes on my speech.”

With exasperation, they ask: “Do you have any strategies that will increase the attention span of my audiences?”

Fortunately, I do have recommendations that have worked for me and many presenters. Here are three of them.

FIRST: Move and keep on moving

Our eyes and our attention do not remain with still objects very long, yet we will stay focused on objects in motion. For example, suppose you and I are standing at the dock where cruise ships come in. We are watching a ship gliding across the horizon. Are we going to stop doing that, and begin looking at a docked ship? That’s not likely. Movement grabs us, not inactivity.

When you speak, get bold enough to walk away from the lectern, podium, table or wherever you have your notes and materials. Sure, this takes considerable courage at first. As happens with most changes, you will feel awkward initially. Before long though, going out into your audience will become easier.

Note how the eyes of your listeners follow you. Their minds will stay attuned as well.

TWO: Tell a compelling story

True, statistics can be impressive. When I read recently that 5.6 million Americans endure paralysis and that this number represents 1 out of every 50 citizens, that startled me.

Shortly afterward I read a heartwarming story about Devon Gales, a Southern University football player who was injured a season ago in a football game against the University of Georgia. Ever since that impact, he has been going through intense physical therapy, in hopes of regaining use of his limbs. Members of the Georgia football team have forgotten he was an opponent. They have visited him, comforted him, and encouraged fans to contribute toward purchasing a home for Devon.

Note how the statistic about paralysis could alert my audience for a couple of minutes, while the story about Devon will keep them enthralled and inspired for as long as I describe his quest for recovery.

Remember how children gave parents full attention when the parents said “Once upon a time”? That response does not disappear when we become adults.

THREE: Involve your audience

The era when audiences would sit passively for extended periods while a speaker remained the whole show has ended. As beloved comedian Jimmy Durante said frequently, “Everybody wants to get into the act.”

So find relevant, interesting, and tasteful activities that foster interaction. For example, if you are talking about customer service, give these instructions: “I’m sure that many of you have experienced great customer service. For the next five minutes, at each of your tables take turns identifying the companies that have given you the best customer service, and tell what made the service so impressive and memorable. So five minutes from now, we will have a leader you appoint at each table report the highlights of your discussion.”

During a half-hour presentation, design two or three interactive exercises, spacing them at intervals that provide a refreshing change.