In the age of YouTube (GOOG), texting, and tweeting, your audience's attention span is shrinking. It's becoming harder to keep your listeners engaged for more than 90 seconds. We've offered tips on crafting an effective elevator pitch, even an escalator pitch, in the past, but the fact is, as a business leader, you'll often be required to speak for much longer periods of time, anywhere from a few hours to a full day. Here are four ways to keep your listeners paying attention during your next long presentation.
Begin with the end in mind. Give your audience a reason to listen. Paint a picture of how your presentation will improve their lives: improving business skills, helping them make or save money, showing them a more effective way of performing a task, etc. I recently hosted a two-hour seminar on a gorgeous day in Monterey, Calif., just a few hundred yards from the ocean. To make it an even tougher sell, most of the marketing and sales professionals were required to attend—their HR departments had made it mandatory. I grabbed their attention immediately by reinforcing the fact that everything they were about to learn would help them succeed professionally, regardless of where their careers would take them. I know it sounds simple, but it bears repeating (and practicing): Hook your audience right out of the gate by getting them to care about the content.
Strike a visual-verbal balance. Many PowerPoint presentations contain charts and graphs to deliver data. While charts are important, you'll rarely hear your audience complain that your presentation had too few of them. If you show a slide that's heavy on data, follow it up with a visual slide that contains little, if any text. If one slide asks the audience to focus on a chart, try following it up with a slide that shows nothing more than an image. This will force the audience to shift its focus to you, the speaker. It will also give everyone's eyes a break.
Organize with 10-minute intervals in mind. Research has shown that our minds tend to wander after approximately 10 minutes. That means during your next presentation, members of your audience are going to tune out at regular intervals to daydream about what they're going to have for dinner or watch on television when they get home. So plan activities designed to draw them back that occur every 10 minutes or so. For example, introduce a second speaker who takes over a small portion of the presentation; insert video clips; ask a question of your audience and get a discussion started; engage them in an activity where they are required to think and write; conduct a demonstration.
Feed your audience. In April, Citigroup (C) held its annual shareholder conference. Needless to say, there were plenty of angry investors who had tough questions about how the bank was operating. To add fuel to the fire, Citigroup decided it would appear "frugal" by skimping on the coffee and doughnuts. Bad move. A hungry audience is an angry audience. If nobody has budgeted for the food, spring for snacks yourself. It's a small price to pay for an alert audience.
If done poorly, long presentations have the potential to bore your audience. It's one thing to keep a crowd engaged for two minutes, but two hours—or more—requires a different set of techniques. Content of course is crucial, but the tips described above will also help make your next presentation a lively event instead of a chore.