Public Enemy N° 1 for Presenters

You’re eight minutes into your presentation and you see the heads going down, the thumbs actively hitting silent keys on smart phones, the fingers typing away on tablets… (Well, OK, they could be taking notes), you notice those slight body movements, as they shift position, and then there’s the coughing, (are there that many people sick,) What’s going on? And then you realize – you’re face to face with Public Enemy N° 1 – Mr Attention Span! (He’s that listening curve that starts at a certain point and then slowly but surely spirals down until you get to the conclusion, then your audience wakes up because it’s the end and they can leave!)

Now where did he come from? Where was he hiding? You didn’t see him when you started – well maybe just right at the beginning, as you warmed up – but then you were pretty sure you’d put the lid on him, after all, what you’ve got to say is really interesting…

And that’s probably true but unfortunately audiences are like children, they won’t stay focused for long unless you find ways to create RUPTURE throughout your presentation. So what is rupture?

Well, it’s what we call fighting the « plateau effect » – when the mind and body get used to something that something starts to lose its impact, it becomes less effective. (Check out « The Plateau Effect » by Bob Sullivan)

So how does that work in a presentation?

Begin differently, incite curiosity right at the start, put that « Hello, I’m delighted to be here, I’m going to be talking about…etc. » to second position in your kick off. I’m not saying you should do a « Steve Balmer » ( but find a way to grab your audience’s attention. Use an image, a question, a statistic, a quote, a short story… BUT make sure that it is linked in some way to your message; otherwise it will be perceived as a technique and nothing else. These days, I believe, you have just got the first 30 seconds to own the floor; if you can get your audience on board at that moment then you’ve won the 1st round against Mr Attention Span

You’ll win the following rounds by:

Organizing your content well - dividing it into chunks – just having the fundamentals of a beginning, middle and an end, will already help. But also think about dividing each point in the same way, like the chapters of a story, but remember to keep it to a short story – audiences don’t take in more than 3 to 4 points.

Dynamic physical delivery – Think about your voice,   if you use the same tone, monotonous or constantly emphatic, as soon as the audience gets used to it, they’ll phase you out. So, vary the tone, the pace, the volume in line with your message. Create rupture through pauses, silences at key moments. Use the physical space, deliberately walk or step to a new position in the room or on stage BUT don’t talk at the same time this will make your impact stronger.

Good use of supports – If you use slides, make sure you use them as a true visual aid for your audience and not a crib sheet for yourself. If you need to show data, give it strong visual impact – an Excel graph embedded into PowerPoint is a sure loser! Combine supports, use videos, audio, props (see Hans Rosling Ted Talk on population growth –

In fact, none of this is rocket science. To understand, all you have to do is to think about yourself and your own attention span when you attend a presentation and just take note when Public Enemy N° 1 takes over. Then with this in mind, plan your intervention accordingly!

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