4 tips to hold your audience’s attention

Sometimes a presentation doesn’t go well. You feel your audience’s attention slipping away, yet you know you still have a lot of information to share, and you panic: what should you do?

Just like a good joke, a presentation will stand or fall with your sense of timing. Think of it as a game you are playing with your audience. Play the game right, and your audience will remain hooked to the end.

Presenting is like throwing balls to your audience

Every time you present a chunk of information, in a sense you are tossing a ball to your audience: ‘here’s some information. Catch.‘ If your audience catches that ball of information, it has fulfilled its purpose. If they drop or ignore it, then your information has had no effect.

During a presentation, you are continuously throwing balls out to your audience. One after another. As a presenter, it is your job to make sure they can continue processing those balls and all that information.

Tip 1: Never throw too many difficult balls one after the other

If you continue throwing difficult and unachievable balls, the audience will decide that the presentation is not for them and they will drop out of the game. Soon enough they will begin tapping on their smartphones or answering emails.

That’s why it pays to put some variety into your information. Alternate between pitching your audience some easier and at times more difficult information. The experts will love that. Throwing a hard ball is not a problem, but if every information ball you throw is a hard-to-catch effect ball that flies off to the corner of the room somewhere, your audience will quickly decide that they are not the ones to whom this game (or presentation) is geared.

Tip 2: Summarize regularly

After a difficult ball, why not provide a brief summary? You can say something like: ‘This section was rather complicated, but what I want you to take away from it is this: (…).’ By giving that quick recap, you are telling the audience, ‘I know I threw some difficult balls at you, but here’s an easy ball to get you back in the game.’

Tip 3: Don’t throw your balls too fast

You know those people who race through their slides? One slide, chart or table follows another at breakneck speed. And towards the end, when the speaker realizes they only have three minutes left, they even start skipping slides.

When you throw information at your audience too quickly, you’re not giving them time to process that content. All they can do is panic and try to catch every little ball, … or simply stop playing along. Two guesses as to which option most people will opt for five minutes into your rushed presentation.

Tip 4: Don’t throw too many balls at a time

Often, people will present slides that are filled to the brim. Background sketch, experimental set-up, graphs, conclusions: all fitted on a single slide. And while that unfolds, they are also still talking.

When presenting a jampacked slide, your audience is getting a lot of balls simultaneously thrown at them.

Even if they would want to, they won’t be able to catch all of them at once. They’ll have to choose which balls to catch.

The solution: present a single idea per slide and discuss everything that is on your slide.

How do the balls fly in your presentation?

Do you alternate difficult information with easy information? Predictable with surprising? Fast with slow? Dry and efficient, with playful and fun?

Do you stick to doing the same thing throughout? Then you are simply regurgitating information. Your audience will quickly disengage. But alternating balls of different shapes and sizes will ensure that they remain in the game.

Translation: Leslie Van Ael