Take a moment and attempt to focus all of your attention on…..NOTHING.
Simply empty your mind.
Did you find your mind wandering to thoughts of what you’re going to eat for dinner, how hard the chair you are sitting in is, why you are reading this article instead of working? The human mind has evolved to process ever-changing stimuli from the environment, thus it is very difficult to stop the mind from wandering and searching for threats, sources of interest, or learning. When conveying information to people, regardless of the context, every presenter must take into consideration the fact that audience members minds will wander….no matter how fascinating your presentation is. How do you capture the conscious attention of your audience members?
1) Images. When giving information to people use images! The human brain is largely an image processing system; illustrating your ideas is the best way to keep people engaged. A good heuristic or rule of thumb is never go more than five to eight minutes without including pictures to sustain interest. It is especially important to illustrate boring information like timelines. In many instructional situations, a timeline is key to understanding a situation or idea; unfortunately people tend to find them extremely dull. Using a software like Tiki-Toki allows you to create engaging and interesting timelines that keep your audiences’ attention on you and not how many holes are in the ceiling or when the next break is going to be so one can grab a tantalizing treat from the snack machine. Video’s are even better than still images, as it mimics “real life” and the brain is synced to process it above other internal stimuli that could cause mind wandering. Video’s that are short (3-8 minutes) are optimal as it maximizes the minds’ natural predilection for novel or new stimulus. This leads us to the next way to keep people paying attention.
2. Novelty. The brains of both humans and animals are wired to prefer new or novel stimulus over repetitive. There are many studies that show the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind naturally gravitate toward paying attention to new information. When presenting information it is important to not spend too much time on one topic. Be mindful of keeping the ideas you are conveying fresh to sustain the focus of your audience.
3. Use the Unusual. A purple elephant in a tu-tu may not be appropriate for your presentation but when you have the opportunity to present your ideas with an unusual twist do it. People remember things that are unusual. Whether it is the words you choose, the frame of reference you present your idea with, or the color/image selection you use in a visual aspect of your instruction; do it with style and people will attend to what you are saying and they will remember it.
There is no sure fire way of keeping your listener engaged 100% of the time but there is research that supports the 80/20 rule: if you can capture the attention of your listener for 80% of the time you have succeeded as a presenter. Making sure that the audience is daydreaming only 20% of the time will dramatically increase the odds they will process what you have said. Using images throughout your presentation, employing your understanding that spending too much time on one idea will derail the consciousness of your listener, and using the unusual as a vehicle for your ideas will help in targeting your audience’s attention.
The essential achievement of the will . . . is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind.
-William James, Principles of Psychology (1890, p. 266)