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Shifting Attention Spans

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The minute the audience members start to think, "This speech is going on too long," or "This guy is so monotonous," or "What time do they serve lunch?" they've stopped listening to you, and your connection with them is broken. Your job is to be aware of this and work to win the attention struggle. Think of it as a game of tug-of-war. 



The posting below gives some excelent advice on the the do's and don'ts of public presentations .  It is from Chapter 2, Principle 2 - Perfection, in the book, The 7 Principles of Public Speaking: Proven Methods from a PR Professional by Richard Zeoli,  Skyhorse Publishing Inc. Copyright 2008 by Richard Zeoli. Skyhorse Publishing, 555 Eighth Avenue, Suite 903, New York, NY 10018 or []


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Shifting Attention Spans


As a speaker, you are competing with real life, and the demands of real life are intense. Unlike going to a movie, when people consciously choose to walk into a theater and forget about life for ninety minutes, most people who come to hear a speech are extremely aware of the world around them, and they are waiting-sometimes patiently, sometimes not-for the speech to end so they can rejoin that world. Your job as a speaker is to remember this and do your best to draw them into your speech.

There was a great line from a Hollywood director who once said, "If they take their eyes off the screen you've lost them." He was giving a modern variation on William Shakespeare's concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. In movies, the minute the audience stops to say, "This is just a movie," the disbelief becomes real and the connection between audience and screen is broken.

Common "disbelief" thoughts include things such as: "Come on, that can't happen; that's so unrealistic," "I wonder how much that explosion cost," "That is a stuntman, no way that's the star," or "That was the corniest line I've ever heard."

When the audience thinks these thoughts during the movie, you can be sure the movie isn't going to be winning too many awards.

And once the connection is broken, it is virtually impossible to repair.

The same is true with public speaking. The minute the audience members start to think, "This speech is going on too long," or "This guy is so monotonous," or "What time do they serve lunch?" they've stopped listening to you, and your connection with them is broken. Your job is to be aware of this and work to win the attention struggle. Think of it as a game of tug-of-war.

On one side you have the speaker pulling the audience toward the speech, and on the other side, you have the demands of the world and people's natural, limited attention spans. Now, imagine that above the attention span, the "tug," are words like:


College Tuition

Angry Boss

Car Repair

Weekend getaway



These are the things that give fuel to the other side, making your job to keep the tug alive and in balance require that much more work and attention.

Most speakers think that they'll rein in their listeners with slides and pictures (and we'll discuss these tools in depth), but the key to remember is that audience attention usually comes in waves. That is to say, it's not so much that the audience is with you for a while and then you lose them for the remainder of the speech. Rather, people will be with you for a few minutes, then their attention will wander for thirty seconds or so, and then it may come back, or it may continue to wander. But people will usually check in and check out. As speakers, if we think creatively about how to keep bringing people back into focus, we'll do our job.

First of all, never be the kind of speaker who gets angry at the audience members for his own inability to keep them interested. I've heard speakers use demeaning tones and say things like:

"Come on, people, stay with me," "what, does this crowd have ADD or something?" or "Look, this is important, pay attention."

I know one thing: Those speakers have never received a standing ovation. They have not only broken the connection with their audience but also have most likely created a hostile audience that is not going to care one iota about what they have to say. There is no quicker way to lose your listeners than to insult their intelligence.

Respect you audience members' attention, and never belittle them. It's not their fault that this tug exists; it's natural. Hollywood has special effects and thematic music on its side to win the struggle. All you have is your speech. (Even if you wanted to use special effects, you could never compete with Hollywood.)

So it's your job to pull your listeners in and keep the tug-of-war in balance.

How do we do it?

Eye Contact

A good speaker will never read a speech. This sounds like common sense, but even people who wind up making note cards often fall back on reading those cards because of the security they afford. Looking into other people's eyes may seem intimidating, but it is not. It's something you do every single day when you are having conversations with people one-on-one. So why should adding a few more eyes to the mix be intimidating?

The truth is we make it intimidating because we are not used to it, but by consciously remembering that in our culture eye contact is a normal part of human interaction and something we do every time we have a conversation, we should have no problem doing it during a speech. In reality, public speaking is nothing more than having a conversation.

Here is where Principles 1 and 2 begin to intersect. Eye contact has the direct effect of signaling to someone, "I should pay attention here; someone is talking to me." It also makes people feel important and makes them feel like you care about them. And they are much more likely to put all their worries on hold and focus on you for a few more minutes if they believe you care about them.

Many years ago, a public speaking coach gave bad advice to clients who were nervous about eye contact. He told them to pick a spot on the back of the wall that is right above the audience members' heads, such as a clock, and look at that to give the audience members the feeling that you are speaking to them. Gimmicks such as this do not work, and audiences are too smart to fall for them. If you take the bad advice this coach gave, your listeners are going to wonder why you keep looking over their heads, and they will tune you out faster than they would a bad commercial during their favorite Thursday-night television show.

Another gimmick often used by coaches consists of advising people to look that the audience's foreheads to give the illusion you are making eye contact with them. All this will do is leave the audience members wondering if they somehow managed to get part of their lunch on their face or if they have really bad dandruff. Don't fall back on gimmicks. They never work.

Good public speaking is all about having that conversation with the audience. Good speakers are not afraid to look other people in the eye.

Tone & Pitch

Tone of voice and vocal emphasis are also essential to keeping this struggle in balance. Good speakers will write their remarks in a way that occasionally throws in phrases designed for vocal inflection, because when the audience hears the speaker's tone of voice shift, it is an automatic verbal cue to pay attention. If a speaker drones on and on about tax laws and all of a sudden says the room is on fire in the same tone of voice, only those smelling the smoke will pay attention. But if the speaker delivers the fire warning in the way it should be delivered-with urgency and inflection-you can bet everybody will wake up and call the fire department.

So while you should never yell "fire" in a crowded auditorium, you should write lines that cause your voice naturally to go up, and you should also write lines that cause your voice to go down, even to the point of becoming quiet. Believe it or not, when you lower the tone of your voice, it actually causes people to listen and tune in just as effectively as if you were to shout something. Plus, it's a whole lot more respectful to your audience.

So how do you write these inflection lines?

Think about places within your remarks that would allow such entries. For example, if you are giving a speech about tax law, throw this line in after a particularly boring paragraph about changes to the tax code:

"But the GOOD NEWS, everyone, is that this means substantial (dramatic pause) savingsŠ for all of us!"

Or perhaps this line: "But guess what, friends, (dramatic pause) this means we are allŠgoingŠtoŠpay a little more this year. I know, I know. This is not my favorite part of the speech."

Lines like these will bring the audience back into focus, and it will do so in a way that causes your listeners to like you much more than if you scolded them for tuning you out for a few moments.

Good speakers take the necessary time to plan such lines throughout their speeches.

Action Steps: Creating Your Key Lines

As you work on your material, think about the benefits you are offering your audience as well as any potential downside to what you are saying. Write both down in a column, just like in the example on the next page.

All of these advantages and disadvantages can be used to bring the audience's attention over to your side of the tug. As you write your speech, think creatively of where these remarks should go. Remember, people's attention spans go in waves so they are usually with you at the opening of your speech, especially if you have a strong opening, as we will discuss later. People are also usually with you during the close of your speech because they recognize that all good things must come to an end and you have prepared them in your speech for the imminent closing.

It's usually during the murky middle of the speech that people's minds tent to wander, so try to insert a line that allows your tone of voice to go up or down at least once or twice in every paragraph. This will ensure the audience member stays with you longer rather than focusing on his or her car's need for an oil change.


Substantial savings to the family

New exploration of undersea medical cures

Lower interest rates for homeowners with good credit

New deductions give you more money back for dependents


Increased paperwork

Big expense to the healthcare industry

Increased disclosure means harder to get a mortgage today

The maximum number of dependents you can declare is four

The Dramatic Pause

President Bill Clinton is an artful user of the dramatic pause, and you should be, too. Most speakers tend to think that a dramatic pause is deadly and that the audience will feel the dead air and get antsy. Just the opposite, however, is true. A well-timed dramatic pause has the effect of sending a cue to the listener to tune in, because chances are something good is coming.

Watch Bill Clinton at a press conference. When he is asked a question, he usually pauses for a few seconds, even occasionally looking off as if he is gathering his thoughts, and then gives a very well-considered answer. And because he pauses for a few seconds, the listeners stop thinking of everything else in the world and tune in to hear what he has to say.

A dramatic pause has a number of advantages and should always be a part of your speaker's arsenal.

A well-placed pause:

Sends a verbal cue to the listener that something important is coming.

Breaks up the tone of voice, allowing the ear to recognize new vocal pitch.

Causes the audience to think that the speaker really has his or her thoughts together.

Is good theater and is a technique used all the time in quality drama by great actors and public figures.

Will always feel longer to the speaker than to the audience. So don't rush it. You will be more aware of its length than your listeners will, as they are focused not on the pause, but on your next words.

There are also things you can do to make sure your speech is going to be comfortable for everyone. Anyone who attends a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman is advised to bring a light jacket or sweater, even during a hot New York summer. That's because Dave keeps the temperature in the Ed Sullivan Theater in the 60s. Why? So people don't fall asleep! A theater or venue that is too hot will make it more difficult for you as a speaker to rein your audience in. That doesn't mean that you can always control the temperature but you can try.

Ask the event coordinator about the temperature and see if you can get to the event early to make adjustments if necessary. Remember, people's normal body temperature is approximately 98 degrees, so a group of people will cause a room to heat up very quickly. Adjust for that. I always recommend that venues keep the temperature around 68 degrees. This will leave room for the audience's natural body heat to warm up the venue without it becoming uncomfortable.

Particularly in the winter-when many venue coordinators come in from the cold and jack up the heat while they are still freezing-it is important to keep in mind how quickly a roomful of a hundred people will warm up. So take this into account.

Returning to this chapter's opening concept-that when you make a mistake, no one cares but you-remember the following:

If you are onstage and you make a mistake, such as fumbling on a word, keep going. Chances are the audience didn't notice because of the reality of shifting attention spans. The odds that your listeners were really with you, right at that moment, and that they caught your mishap are slim anyway. But even if they did notice, so what? As we've discussed earlier, they aren't going to start laughing at you, and you will be able to recover. So keep going.