There are a number of reasons why you might want to capture an audience’s attention: giving a talk, presenting a marketing pitch, teaching a workshop, or selling a product online. Whatever the case may be, capturing an audience’s attention is critical to being persuasive and to giving effective presentations.
Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to certain things and if you can learn to master using those things in presentations, your ability to keep an audience’s attention will improve dramatically.
Research has shown that, whether we like it or not, human beings can’t help but pay attention to moving objects and loud noises. But we also can’t help but pay attention to anything related to our survival: food, sex, and danger. And, perhaps even more interesting, we can’t help but want to look at the faces of our own species. Yes, we are a self-centered animal; and knowing that can help you give more effective, and persuasive presentations.
Here’s my list of the five best ways to capture an audience’s attention.
Whether we like it or not, we are drawn to motion. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism that causes us to be alert to objects moving around us, but we have to look at things that are moving. This is why so many online advertisers nowadays use ads that include motion and video. Even if these objects are annoying, people will pay attention to them. Of course, if you are giving a presentation or a lecture, you don’t want to annoy your audience. But a video clip once in a while can be a nice way to keep a person’s attention.
#2: Human Faces
We human beings are, thankfully, attracted to people. We like to look at people’s faces, to examine them and to “read” them. We look for traits, for credibility, for weaknesses. We even judge people whose faces look baby-like and when a face is large in an image, we interpret intellect and personality. When you’re giving a presentation, you will do well to frequently show large images of people’s faces, especially if the faces are looking directly at the audience.
#3: Food, Sex, and Danger
It has been said that a portion of our brains are “reptilian.” In other words, like a reptile, that portion of our brain is only focused on survival. Because of that innate piece of our anatomical structure, we can’t help but want to look at the things that keep our species alive. Without food, individuals die. Without sex, our species dies. Without being able to recognize danger, well, we would collectively become the next dodo bird. If you’re giving a presentation and you show images of food, of sex or sensuality, or of dangerous or gruesome images, people will have to look. In fact, they almost can’t not look. Food, sex, and violence. Sounds like a common movie script.
People are drawn to stories. Plain and simple. Try this: the next time you give a talk, start it out by saying, “let me tell you a story.” Guaranteed, people will look right at you. Of course, if your story gets boring, people may zone right back out. But you are a thousand times more likely (I’m exaggerating here, but only a little) to keep an audience’s attention if you tell stories, create plots, and make narrative connections between ideas than if you simply give facts, quotes, and statistics.
#5: Noise Variations
Obviously, loud noises will grab our attention. Perhaps, again, as a survival mechanism, we are trained to jolt and look when we are startled by loud noises. But we also perk up when noises simply change. When noises move from soft to loud, from pleasant to cacophonous, or simply from monotone to emphatic. Whatever the case may be, try to create some variance in your noises during a presentation. Play music, pound the pulpit, laugh, fluctuate your tone, whatever. Give your audience something not only to listen to, but to listen for.
100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know about People. Susan Weinschenk. New Riders, 2011.