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VIEWPOINT: Holding your audiences’ attention

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Time is fixed; 20 minutes is 20 minutes. But when it comes to speaking, a 20-minute talk may seem longer or shorter from the perspective of the audience. This is referred to as the ‘Oddball Effect’, which causes the brain to be tricked by the perception of time.

HOW WE PERCEIVE TIME

When something unusual happens, we tend to devote more neural resources to understanding what is happening and as a result it feels like it took a longer period of time. When new of important information is received, it causes your brain to focus more and as a result you perceive time to slow down. Another way that we perceive time differently is by the amount of information that we receive in a particular space of time. Anything that requires cognitive processing – like thinking, speaking and listening – are all physically demanding on brain energy. Researchers refer to this demand on the brain as ‘cognitive backlog’. If too much information is being presented at once, your audience will eventually stop listening to you.

When it comes to experiencing time, your brain has a specific time limit of how much of information it can take in. In fact, there is a three-second window of when your brain decides what new information it wants to store, or if overwhelmed, whether to simply shut down. This is why as a speaker you have to ensure that your presentation is orderly, well structured, and presented in a way to allow your audience to digest the information to avoid cognitive backlog.

HOW TO ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE

The longer your talk, the more ‘soft breaks’ you need to build into your speech through the use of stories, videos, audience activities, on-stage demonstrations, and group games.

You should also consider repeating key lines of important and new information. Slow down the pace of your speaking to allow your audience the time they need to digest and internalise the information.

Review your talk to ensure logical presentation of information. The longer your presentation, the more your audience will have to concentrate to make sense, organise and remember the information being shared – this leads to brain fatigue.

Avoid presenting a ‘shopping-cart list’ of tasks and action points to your audience. The longer the ’task list’, the greater the information being delivered – adding to the cognitive load. Instead, provide a handout to your audience with the detailed list of tasks; during your presentation highlight the top three tasks.

Technical information requires more concentration and critical listening is physically exhausting. Incorporate facts, research, graphs and statistics to lighten the load of technical information, making it easier to comprehend.

INSPIRATIONAL ADVICE

  • Pace of speech. Constantly adjust the pace during your talk to ensure that you do not bore your audience.
  • Simple language. The most impactful talk is made up of easy yet thought-provoking words that get your audience thinking.
  • Record yourself. Watching yourself on video helps to improve not only what you say but also how you say it.
  • Refinement. Constantly review your speech presentation and change two major items either with content or delivery to make the talk more memorable.
  • Have fun. If you enjoy delivering your presentation, most likely your audience will enjoy listening to you.

Author: Dineshrie Pillay CA(SA) is a business owner and public speaker trainer