Skilled speakers have developed what appear as intuitive responses to the drifting attention span that can happen when you are face-to-face with a small group or a big audience. While some of these turnaround efforts may truly be intuitive, most are learned behaviors, usually from painful experiences.

I’ve identified 4 proven tactics to recapture your audience’s fading attention. You can begin to practice them right away so you’ll look and sound in control, too.

  1. Make use of opening techniques throughout your message, not just for the opening!
  2. Pose questions and elicit answers
  3. Match content to images that provoke responses
  4. Include good “cocktail conversation†items to maintain interest


Attention-Keeping Tactic 1:  Why You Need More than One Opening for Your Presentation

A woman in business attire is giving a presentation.


As you will learn in our new free miniCourse (click here to enroll), one of the best ways to boost listening levels throughout your presentation is to treat your main points and subpoints as if each were the original opening of your message.

Here are six powerful techniques:

  1. Tell a Story, the speaker’s equivalent of “Once Upon a Time†
  2. Arouse Suspense, get them to wonder where you’re going 
  3. Startle with a newsworthy fact
  4. Promise to give them something 
  5. Ask for a show of hands
  6. Use an object or exhibit

A story or personal anecdote you considered using to open the presentation, but that just didn’t have the right punch, could be just the best way to launch a main point or subpoint. Take a look at this short post on how to tell good anecdotes.

You sensed that asking the audience for a show of hands to answer a particular question would not be well received in the opening of your speech. But, later in the message, that question and getting the audience to raise their hands in response could be just the right strategy to revitalize the crowd and re-engage them with your message.

“And now that we’ve been talking about the role of chocolate in our lives for a little while, by a show of hands, who believes that chocolate can provide health benefits as well as satisfy our sweet tooth?â€

Similarly, you have a clever prop or a remarkable graph that you know will get the group to react, but it only pertained to one of the points you planned to present so it was wrong for the opening of your presentation. That commanding visual element, placed in the right slot, is another ideal way to reinvigorate those attending. If you always wondered how to make animated graphs in powerpoint, check out this step by step video by Evanto Tuts+.


Applying Openings to Pump Up Your Message

Say you’re introducing a main point about changing a longtime procedure in your organization. A typical, unimaginative approach might be: “The next aspect of the transition we need to go over is how this change will impact the support staff.”

Instead, you might want to try out the “promise to give them something” opening and “the startling fact” technique, to see how you can energize the beginning of this important point.

(Promise.) “By the time we’ve finished showing you what this transition will mean to our support staff operations, you’re going to see how much faster and more secure both routine and special project data storage will be, with no increase in anyone’s workload.”

(Fact.) “The largest, fastest-growing counties in our state have already adopted the new case management that we’re about to discuss, and they report a 75 percent satisfaction rate once it’s installed and working up to potential.”


Attention-Keeping Tactic 2: Ask Open-Ended Questions

At regular intervals in your speech, throw out a question not answerable by a simple “yes†or “noâ€â€”and seek out responses from your audience. This tactic is often in play among experienced speakers. You not only stimulate interest by converting what could be viewed as a lecture into a group discussion, but you also create the element of surprise and a sense of anticipation, which most people truly enjoy. No one knows in advance what will be said by the nonexpert members of the group. And will you, as the speaker, agree, disagree, praise, or criticize the response?

The value of posing questions to your audience is immense in terms of promoting audience involvement and appreciation.


A group of people sitting in front of a man.
At regular intervals in your speech, throw out a question not answerable by a simple “yes†or “noâ€â€”and seek out responses from your audience.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions You Can Pose

Depending on who’s in your audience, you have a variety of possibilities of questions to trot out and re-energize your speaking situation. Here are some:

  • “Have you ever had a similar experience? Tell us about it.” 
  • “Why do you think this kind of practice could work or might not?” 
  • “If you were writing the legislation, what would you want to see included?”
  • “What was the best place you ever traveled and why?” 
  • “When is the best time to exercise for you, and what do you do to stay in shape?”
  • “What would you say was the biggest challenge you had starting your business?”
  • “As a parent, what has been the most rewarding aspect of raising your children?”
  • “What gets in your way when you’re trying to lose weight?”
  • “What was your biggest ‘aha moment’ in the last few weeks?”


Potential Downside of Asking Questions

Given that most people like to keep talking once they get cranked up, you risk losing control of the speaking situation when you ask a question and encourage audience members to answer it. Several other awful things can also happen:

  • The person can say something truly inappropriate, off-color, racially biased, or worse.
  • Your facts, position, or credentials can be challenged in a less-than-friendly way, even to the point of someone trying to trash your message and you.
  • You thank the person for responding and try to move on, but the individual refuses to stop talking or to return the microphone to you.

To prevent some of these occurrences, especially in a large crowd setting, always insist on two microphones. One is for you, and one can be available to the audience, whether portable or in a fixed location. That way, you can override the unwelcome participation, if needed.

Try to set some ground rules right after you pose the question. Request that the responses be as brief as possible to give time for others to participate as well. Be sure and acknowledge each respondent before taking the next answer, even if it’s an extremely brief thank-you.

Despite the potential for loss of control, I find this question-asking technique works beautifully most of the time. It can really help your presentation stay on track attention-wise and to be well received.


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Attention-Keeping Tactic 3: Match Content to Provocative Visuals

While many folks rely heavily on programs like PowerPoint and videos, just having images is not enough. We’ve all suffered through a boring PowerPoint presentation with dull slides and too many words. Or endured an amateur video with awful lighting, sound, and questionable content. Even professional videos that are dressed with spiffy images but say nothing can be frustrating, as you wonder why they spent money and time developing something so useless.

Remember that not every set of ideas needs a visual, and that you can sometimes more effectively use words in a good story or a well-crafted description to help paint a picture in your audience’s mind.

I’m not encouraging you to use a visual for shock value only. When I worked with a surgeon who insisted on putting in a PowerPoint slide of a girl in a skimpy bikini half-way through his talk “to wake everyone up.” I pointed out that his approach was more than a little sexist in that half of his audience was female. Further, he was belittling his own research and remarks by interjecting an irrelevant slide. Better, I recommended that we identify some uplifting success stories or other content that would more suitably maintain a high-interest level.

A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.
An old guideline is to include no more than six words on a line on your visual

What Goes into Making Great Visuals?

With the world’s shrinking attention span, you can increase the odds of getting folks to listen and act when you use visuals the right way. Here are some recommendations that I’ve found helpful:

  • Less is more. An old guideline which I believe remains somewhat valid is to include no more than six words on a line on your visual.
  • Limit the number of lines of text and use a large, easy-to-ready font. Ideally, display two or three, maximum. Remember, the slides exist to complement your spoken words, not replace you. Too much text and as the speaker, you may find yourself reading it aloud instead of maintaining your conversational tone with the audience.
  • Keep headline colors and type fonts consistent. Too much variety and your audience doesn’t know where to look first and their attention will be diverted from your key messages.
  • More images, less text. Do pack a positive punch by selecting powerful, relevant images that help you make your points.

Our Free Resources selection:

Some websites provide free resources, just make sure you credit the photographers and designers. Here is our selection:

Attention-Keeping Tactic 4: Add Good “Cocktail Conversation” & Avoid Others

You don’t need to have imbibed anything to engage in worthwhile cocktail conversation. The idea is to gather and be ready to add content to your messages that is enticing, stimulating, and could be repeated at a cocktail party to impress others. I’m not recommending that you gossip or bring down anyone or a particular group with your version of these conversational wonders. I am encouraging you to give yourself time to find gems you can sprinkle into your message that will light up the house.

Part of the reason that I’m out going to meetings and networking is to meet potential clients. But the other motivation, equally important, is to keep abreast of what the so-called “thought leaders” are saying in our community. My goal is to come away from every meeting with at least one example, story, or insight that I can share in my next presentation. You can, too!

Cocktail Conversation to Avoid in Private or Group Settings

Good manners were once taught at a tender age and their importance reinforced as you got older. Some parents have continued this practice and other people have been left to discover the value of manners on their own. In that spirit, I offer some generally off-limits topics and questions to avoid:

  • The income of those in the audience, health or diet info (unless it’s relevant),
  • Personal tragedies (unless they are relevant to your topic)
  • How much you paid for anything
  • Off-color or discriminatory statements, political or religious positions

What other tactics have work for you? Leave your comment below.

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