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Friday, July 13, 2012

How to Keep People's Attention - But not too Much

Every speaker dreams of holding an audience's rapt attention. Each word is a savored morsel in the feast of knowledge.

If you're lucky, that'll happen to you. But most of us live at other places on the spectrum. On one end is complete distraction. The audience doesn't care, even a little bit, what you're saying. Toward the middle is moderate engagement with some mind wandering. The sweet spot is where they care wrapped up in what you have to say and fully engaged. But if you go past that, you'll overload them and lose them again.

The idea is to command enough attention that they have to focus on you, but to still leave some attention left for them to process what you're saying and file it away.

Attention is limited by the amount of cognitive load you experience. You have a finite number of things you can keep in your working memory at one time. It's like the top of a desk or a counter. You start with an empty workspace, but as you bring in work, the space is used up. When you're out of space then adding anything new will cover up something already there.

Everything that demands attention adds to the cognitive load. So if the audience is worried about the temperature, listening to the traffic outside, wondering what that smell is and uncomfortable in the seats, all that reduces the amount of space left for what you're saying. Typically the environment isn't a big offender. But distractions abound and each one is a part of the total load.

The workspace wants to be filled. An empty desk is an invitation to pile things (at least to me) and your brain is no different. It wants to pay attention to something. So, if you don't have enough of a cognitive load, your brain will find - or manufacture - other things. This is why you daydream when you're bored. Your brain is filling up the spaces. To prevent the daydreaming boredom of an audience, you need to give them enough to pay attention to, but no so much that things get pushed out.

Every audience is different. If you're speaking to a group of young parents with children in the audience, they will have a much lower cognitive load capacity due to their children. Because of that, you won't be able to demand as much attention from them as you might be able to from a different audience. Learn your people before you talk to them so you can provide the ideal amount of information.

Give them a place to wander. It's inevitable that your audience will stop paying full attention to you when you speak. The mind moves much faster than the mouth. They can think more quickly than you can speak. So, give them something to think about when they're distracted. I like to use visuals that reinforce what I'm saying while still giving room for interpretation. Another strategy is to ask questions during your talk so the audience is thinking about an answer or comment. Some people use outlines that are filled out during the talk, but I find this is more distracting since I'm trying to guess what the next point will be instead of listening to the current point.

How do you keep the attention of your audience?

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