The truth about attention spans (and what presenters can do about it)

Use rhetorical devices to get your audience's attention

We always hear that people today have short attention spans.

I am sure it’s true.

But this is also true: attention spans have never been long to start with. That’s why the ancient Greeks and Romans gave so much thought to rhetoric. Their tricks are as valid today as they were 2000 years ago:

  • Want to catch our attention? Start with a question.
  • Want to involve us emotionally? Paint pictures in our heads.
  • Want us to follow your train of thought? Have a super-simple structure.

Such techniques are vital. But even they can’t hold attention for long. In his book Brain Rules, the neuroscientist John Medina, introduces the 10-minute rule: as a lecturer, he observed that attention drops dramatically after just 10 minutes.

In my experience, ten minutes is already long. Holding people’s attention for five, six, seven minutes is really really hard. True, some people can entice us longer. Professional keynote speakers can. And professional storytellers can. But they’ve honed their skill during years and years and years.

The rest of us are well advised to stick to the rule: keep it under 10!

And when you really have more time to fill?
Then you need to reframe: don’t give a presentation, hold a workshop. Because participation changes everything.

Photo by Chris Greenhow on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “The truth about attention spans (and what presenters can do about it)

  1. Agree with these tips – thank you ! Great advice about workshop format It’s an audience energiser , connector and motivator. A workshop leader can have far more fun and involvement too.

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