Your Audience Will Leave You–Six Ways to Bring Them Back

Studies vary on the length of our attention spans, but one study recently concluded that the average attention span is eight seconds. Whatever the actual time might be, people have trouble paying attention, especially when listening to a speaker. Inattention  is even more likely if it’s a technically-oriented presentation.

Recently, in coaching several insurance executives in presentation skills, I was reminded of this challenge for every speaker. You know the audience is going to leave you several times in a 30-minute presentation. In essence, one of the major goals of the speaker is to bring the audience member back to pay attention to his or her speech. No matter how effective the message is, the human mind cannot focus for very long. Here are some ways of combating that consistent challenge.

  1. Let the audience know early in the speech that you have only two or three points to make. When you begin by saying, “I plan to cover seven different ideas,” your audience will be quick to shut down mentally.
  2. Include an example every few minutes. The listener responds quickly to “Let me give you an example… “  We remember what it was like when we were young for an adult to start reading a story that began with “Once upon a time…” The example hook is the adult version of this technique.
  3. Include at least one transition that encourages the audience to come back to you and your speech. The best one is probably, “You may forget everything else I say today, but remember this one idea.”  Be sure this transition does lead to the most important idea; don’t use it as a gimmick to make them listen again. Be reminded that you can only use this once in a presentation. Another is “This may be something you know but have not been putting into use.” (Mental response:  Me? Do I already know this?)

    An audience where the speaker had no WOW factor, poor organization, too many points, and no stimulating transitions.

  4. Include a “wow” factor every eight to ten minutes. This is simply a phrase, statistic, comparison, picture, or quotation that makes the audience member respond with “Wow! I did not know that.”
  5. Change your delivery style. Soften your voice if you have been pretty loud. Move a step or two with purpose when making an important point. Movement attracts attention. Speed up or slow down your rate of speech.
  6. Finally, tighten the organization of your presentation. If the audience feels that you are disorganized and finds it difficult to follow you, they will soon leave you—and may never come back. In preparation, check to see that each point relates to the other main points and that each piece of supporting material connects back to the point. Early in your presentation, preview your main points and stick to that structure.

Even the most effective speaker will lose his or her audience occasionally.  These techniques, however, will at least make it less likely for the audience member to leave you for the duration.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at

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