How to Keep Your Audience Focused on Your Presentation

Boring presentations are all too common in the business world. Learn to engage your audience with these nine tips.
September 14, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense movies, once said: "Always make the audience suffer as much as possible." Today, this statement can easily be applied to the majority of speakers delivering business presentations. Giving a bad presentation is tantamount to mental abuse. What's more, no matter how important or valuable our content is, if it is not presented in a way that sparks and maintains attention, we lose.

Here are nine practical tips to help you deliver engaging presentations that will keep the audience focused on your message:

1. Be mindful of the 10-minute rule.

It is a well-known fact that attention wanes after about 10 minutes. However, most presenters seem to forget this and continue to drone on for an hour or more; they move from mind-numbing slide to slide, unaware of the painful effect on the audience. When you create your presentation, plan to have a strategic change every 10 minutes. A change can be as simple as asking a good question that can stimulate some audience interaction. It can be showing a pertinent video clip, telling a relevant story or getting the audience to do something, such as analyzing a diagram. You can also press "B" on your keyboard to blacken your screen. Then switch to presenting the next segment in your presentation using a different medium, such as writing on a flipchart or whiteboard. Sameness generates boredom; a change, even minor, recaptures attention.

2. Use images.

In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Dr. John Medina reminds us that "Vision trumps all other senses." When we hear a piece of information, three days later we'll remember only 10 percent of it; but if we add a picture, we'll remember 65 percent. The message is loud and clear: Text-based slides are ineffective in maintaining attention and aiding memory. Spice up your presentations with images. You can get good quality, affordable images from sites such as iStockphoto and Fotolia.

3. Represent bullets in graphical form.

Show some of the bullets on your slides in an appealing, visual way. The SmartArt feature in PowerPoint is a good choice, however, since most presenters use SmartArt, stand out from the crowd by buying different diagrams from sites such as Duarte or Slideshop. Check out Prezi , as well, and watch how this presentation software energizes your talk.

4. Honor the audience.

Nothing perks up an audience more than switching the limelight from you to them. A simple statement such as: "I know there is a great deal of talent in this room. I encourage you to bring that talent to bear and share your thoughts on the topic with the rest of the group."

5. Use alternatives to lecturing.

There are many alternatives to lecturing when you deliver information. For example, you can present one part of your presentation in the form of a mind map: Draw the mind map on a flipchart as you speak, animate the mind map in your slide or use mind-mapping software such as Matchware or Mindjet. Give it a try and see how it keeps the audience more focused on your presentation.

6. Connect the dots for people.

Help people see the flow of your presentation so that they can easily understand where you have been and where you are headed. Use signposts, such as "The first reason was . . .Now, I'll address the second reason...." Above all, insert transitions that help people understand why they should care: "What I am going to say next is especially crucial for the success of this project..."; "The one thing I would like you to remember is..."; "Why is this important to our company?"; "What does this mean for us?" These transitions answer the crucial "So what?" question in the audience's mind and helps to re-engage audience members who may have tuned you out.

7. Learn the art of the question.

Have a repertoire of questions that you can draw from in the moment. While we all know the value of open-ended questions, it is sometimes difficult to think of them on the spot. Above all, use questions that keep the conversation going when someone asks you a question or makes a comment. Here are a few to keep in your pocket: "What led you to this conclusion?" "How would you explain this?", "How does this tie in with...", "Could you give me an example of what you mean?", or simply, "Tell me more."

8. Don't use the slides as your speaking notes.

It is astounding how many otherwise intelligent people continue to display slides that are dense with text and expect the audience to simultaneously read the slides and listen to them speak. This is by far the most egregious sin a presenter can commit. In the RSA Animate, 5 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People, Dr. Susan Weinschenk illustrates how the visual channel trumps auditory. As Weinschenk states, "If you have complicated information for people to read or look at, then they are not going to be listening to you anymore. The sensory combination of slides that are filled with text and a speaker who is talking is just a bad combination." Don't do this.

9. Avoid the graveyard shift.

If you can, avoid presenting right after lunch. The optimal time for maximum attention are the hours between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.

It is a privilege to have people listen to us. With that privilege comes a responsibility—the responsibility to deliver our information in a stimulating and intellectually engaging way. It pays to devote some time to learn how to improve your presentation skills. Business author and speaker, Tom Peters, put it best: "Presentation skills are worthy of extreme, obsessive study." This is a smart business move for anyone whose success depends on communicating key company messages.

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