Your audience will mentally check out of your next PowerPoint presentation after about 10 minutes. Given a presentation of moderately interesting content, your audiences’ attention will "plummet to near zero" after 9 minutes and 59 seconds, according biologist John Medina at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "Before the first quarter-hour is over in a typical presentation, people usually have checked out," says Medina who cites peer-reviewed studies to reinforce this observation.
Before I delivered a keynote speech recently I had the opportunity to sit in the back of a large auditorium as other speakers took the stage. The first speaker was a dynamic woman who did all the right things consistent with a finely tuned presentation. In the first 10 minutes of her presentation members of the audience were taking notes, laughing at her jokes, and appeared to be engaged. Within 20 minutes many people were checking their phones under the table. Thirty minutes went by and the shuffling got more noticeable. Some got up and left for the bathroom. Did they really need a physical break? The conference had just gotten started. The speaker had good delivery and relevant content, but she had failed to re-engage her audience every 10 minutes when attention spans start to deteriorate.
The solution to maintaining your audiences’ attention after 10 minutes is remarkably simple. The secret is to create soft breaks to re-engage your audience. Examples of soft breaks include:
Videos. We spend much of our lives in a multimedia environment, watching videos on YouTube or sharing photos on Facebook. Yet very few presenters use video to jazz up their PowerPoint decks. You’ll stand apart simply by incorporating more video and it will keep the attention of your audience if you space out the clips every ten minutes. Video might include product demonstrations, customer testimonials, your company’s current ad campaigns, etc. In this column about Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun, I note that the most engaging part of Braun’s pitch presentation is a 40-second video clip showing three young girls who would become students in the first Pencils of Promise school. Braun recorded the video himself on a simple point-and-shoot camera. Be creative.
Demos. If your product or service lends itself to a demonstration, don’t wait until the end of your PowerPoint presentation to give it. Most pitch presentations are front-loaded with PowerPoint slides, concluding with the demonstration. If the demo doesn’t come until you’ve covered 50 slides, you’ve lost your audience long before you show off your product.
Second voices. I learned this technique from someone who knew a few things about giving a great presentation – Steve Jobs. During his famous product launches, Jobs rarely spoke for more than ten minutes without introducing another speaker; a "character" to help narrate the story. In a 90-minute presentation, Jobs would often share the stage with at least five other speakers including internal executives, product designers, game or app developers, and outside partners.
Audience involvement. Get away from the slides from time to time and get the audience involved. Pose a simple question and ask audience members to voice their answers. I’ve seen some presenters use audience polling apps to take instant surveys and to discuss the results. Again, be creative. I recently sat down with a large group of employees for a healthcare organization. On the tables were envelopes with a note, "do not open until asked to do so." During his presentation one of the executives told the audience to open the envelope and to read the story that an employee had emailed him, a story that reinforced the reason behind a new initiative. Nice touch.
Activities. Activities work particularly well in classroom and workshop presentations. Instructors who give classroom lessons to students or business professionals should build their trainings into segments of 10 minutes to keep their listeners from getting bored.
Each of these five suggestions serves the same purpose—to give your audience a mental break. People lose interest really, really easily. Don’t give them a chance to get bored in your next presentation. Pay attention to the 10-minute rule and your audience will pay attention to you.
As many of you know, the TED talk rule is no more than 18 minutes for the entire presentation. One of the reasons for this rule is exactly what we are talking about here. Your audience will lose interest. In fact, chapter 7 in Talk Like TED is called Stick to the 18-Minute Rule.
As a keynote speaker, many clients expect me to talk for at least 45 minutes followed by 15 minutes of questions. I always build in one of the soft breaks listed above to give my audience a breather and keep them engaged. If you are required to give a presentation that lasts longer than an average TED talk, just remember to put yourself in the audience’s position and ask, "Am I bored yet?" and build breaks in accordingly.
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Carmine Gallo is a Forbes.com columnist, an acclaimed communication coach and the bestselling author of The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Other books include the award-winning The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and the breakthrough The Apple Experience among others. His books have been translated in over a dozen languages. Carmine is a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader. You can see Carmine’s enthusiastic and engaging style in this video from LeWeb in Paris. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to schedule an interview with the author.
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