June 14, 2019 / Esther Choy


The shrinking attention span is an urban myth… well, almost one. Here’s why. Attention is all about individuals and what interests them. “People can and do focus their attention well when they want to and are interested in a particular task or activity,” says Dr. Gemma Briggs, senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University, who notes that psychologists don’t consider “average attention span” to be a very meaningful concept. This means there’s good news and bad news for speakers who want to catch their audience’s attention. The good news is that your audience’s attention span isn’t as short as others might have you think. You just have to be willing to work for it.

The bad news is that you do have to work for it. Are you willing? There is no magical formula here. Gaining and retaining your audience’s attention requires thinking differently. The status quo just doesn’t work.

Attention span is highly context based. Briggs says that how a person applies attention to different tasks depends on what that individual brings to the particular situation. What task are they trying to complete? What is their previous experience with similar tasks? What else are they trying to accomplish at the same time?

These are factors Briggs says can change audience’s attention levels. For instance, while listening to a keynote speaker, an audience member might be trying to grasp a concept that they hope will change their life. Likely they’ve attended other keynotes in the past–some that have revolutionized their thinking, some that left them flat. While listening to the current keynote, they may also be trying to decide which session to attend next, wondering if they remembered to bring their hotel key or worrying about who they will eat dinner with. All of this factors into their ability to focus their attention.

Know your audience’s script.

Briggs explains that we all have “cognitive rules of thumb, or scripts” for situations. She uses going to a restaurant as an example–”we have a script for what will happen: sit down, get a menu, order, get your meal” and so forth. “When we know what to expect,” says Briggs, “we may pay less attention as less cognitive effort is required.”

She theorizes that “if you put people in a situation which deviates from the norm for that particular task, and you ensure that they aren’t multitasking, you could in theory encourage people to apply more attention to the task.”

For example, what is your audience’s script for attending a presentation? A colleague of mine remembers showing up to an astronomy class where for the first few minutes, no professor showed up. Then, all of a sudden, someone in the third row started talking, raising questions about astronomy. It was the professor! He was sitting in the middle of the class, starting his lecture from his seat! The simple act of changing the script immediately caught the attention of a hundred undergraduates.

Briggs stresses that each person will differ in what they bring to the situation and how much attention they apply–so flipping the script may be effective for some and not others.

Aim for the “Flow State.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the first psychologist to study flow state describes it as being so totally engrossed in the task at hand that we feel our “existence is temporarily suspended,” says Csikszentmihalyi. It’s the state of mind that makes video gamers lose track of time. It’s what many people feel while competing in a favorite sport, playing an instrument, designing a new product, reading a good book or doing other challenging things that they love. So how do you catch the audience’s attention, keep it and ensure that they are learning throughout your presentation?

Here are three tips.

1. Remember that speaking and giving presentations isn’t about you the speaker, how much you know or how awesome you are.

“Many speakers think that the goal is to prove that the speaker knows their stuff,” says Dr. Steven M. Smith, professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Texas A&M, “but the real goal is to get a clear message across. Audiences remember only a few things from any talk, so the speaker needs to know exactly what those few things are, and present them with as little distraction as possible.”What are some possibly counterproductive distractions? It boils down to irrelevant information. Smith cites “having too many words on the screen, having cute but irrelevant things on the screen and funny but irrelevant jokes.”

2. Rinse and repeat.

Find ways to repeat key terms in a non-patronizing way. “Telling people something only one time,” says Smith, “especially the meaning of an important term or an acronym, does not mean that the audience will remember it for the rest of the presentation. If someone misses the original explanation, or forgets it 30 seconds later, they can be totally lost. Use frequent reminders!”

3. Check for understanding.

Has your audience really heard your message? Yes? You’re sure? Well, there’s a difference between hearing and understanding. So find out if they have understood or were just smiling and nodding.

“Check in now and then with the audience,” Smith advises. “Ask a question, ask for a show of hands, to see if they get what you said. A risky, but potentially effective strategy is to make a relevant joke that can be understood only if the audience gets the point– no laughs shows that they didn’t get it (or that you aren’t as funny as you thought you were).”

Preparing to address an audience always involves a heavy investment of time and thought. The good news is that you can walk into the room confident that your audience can be persuaded to pay attention. It just takes a strong commitment to shifting from your perspective to theirs, remembering that the main goal is to facilitate their learning.

Read the full interview transcripts with Dr. Gemma Briggs and Dr. Steven M. Smith here.

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Don’t miss out on your next opportunity to make the most of your audience’s attention span. Contact us for business storytelling training! Leadership Story Lab trains and coaches managers in storytelling techniques to help them become more engaging and persuasive communicators. Whether you would like to stand out in the interview process, add punch to a presentation, or make a compelling case for a new initiative, we can help. Schedule a working session with us today!

Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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