Holding an audience’s attention for 20 minutes (or more)

Charles Greene

Quite often you are asked to speak for a long time period, but how do you keep the audience’s attention?  Charles Greene gives a few pointers.

How could they be nodding off and falling asleep while you’re presenting?  Don’t they know the impact that your message could have on them?  Well, if you’re speaking in a corporate monotone, reading a script at the lectern and projecting slides in a darkened room, the fault is all yours if parts of your audience catch a few zzzzs.

Audiences today are used to fast-cut videos and Twitter-sized messaging.  Too often they quickly mentally check out and start back-channelling as soon as you’ve been introduced.  Even attentive audiences need some kind of break every 7 to 10 minutes to help them maintain their positive levels of interest.


The old practice of captivating attention by being at the front of the room and holding the conch no longer works. (Did it ever really work?) To keep an audience paying attention, you’ve got to keep them in a state of slight anticipation.  You can do that by varying the elements of your presentation.   The best guarantee against waning attention is variety.

Peaks and valleys

All presentations should have peaks and valleys.  Highs and lows are essential for good dramatic form.  Keeping your presentation level constantly at peak would be as disastrous as having it stay in the lowlands.

The problem is that most speakers have only a very wide valley in the middle of their presentation.  They start out great when the audience is most attentive, usually the first 5 to 7 minutes, and they end well, with a summation of their key points in the last 5 minutes.  It’s that centre portion which tends to drag like a pregnant cat’s belly.

Jolt the audience’s attention

Fortunately, as the presenter you are in charge of most of your own success.   To jolt the attention level of your audience, there are three areas where you can use variety:  you, the audience and the elements in the room.  Consider the following tactics and use them alone or in combination.  With experience you’ll learn how to inject them at just the right moment so that no matter the length of your talk, your audience will remain attentive to your every word.

Variable elements for the presenter

Voice: Talking in a monotone is the kiss of death.  Use vocal variety to capture attention.  Change your pace, whisper or pause.  Of the three, pause is the strongest way to gain attention.  Simply stop talking and wait.  Not only do pauses capture attention, people give greater importance to the information that comes after a pause.

Eye contact: Presentations should be conversational.  Make eye contact with someone and you’ll keep their attention.  Even in a large room you can connect with people who are physically far from you.  Look at someone and speak to them directly for a few seconds.  Then move on to other people in other parts of the room as you continue your talk.

Props: Bring out a prop related to your talk.  Tell a part of your story with the prop in hand.  It will attract everyone’s eyes and refocus attention.  Make sure that your prop is appropriate to your talk.

Variable elements of the room

Slides: Vary your slides as you would vary your vocal range.  Mix text slides with highly striking graphic visuals.  Review your slides in the slide sorter mode to check out the visual flow of your slide deck.

In contrast to using strong visual slides mixed with text slides, occasionally blank the screen.  Attention levels fall when the slides on a screen become the focus. Lose the slides temporarily.  Blank the screen and direct attention back towards you.

Lights: A dark room invites Mr Sandman to visit.  If you’ve been presenting in a dark room, have the lights turned on, especially during an after-lunch presentation.  The lights don’t have to be at full tilt, but just at a level to let you see everyone and for them to know that they can be seen by you.

Room set-up: Empty chairs create dead spots that kill the energy level in a room.  Get people to sit together near the front.  If possible, have the room set up for fewer people than expected.  You can add chairs later.

Variable elements for the audience

Names: Nothing keeps an audience on their toes and awake as using their names.  Remember how you perked up in class when the teacher called your name?  Ask direct questions or mention people and their stories.

Empathy: Share the spotlight.  Have an audience member give a brief comment on a portion of your talk.  These moments will gain attention and shift the dynamic in the room, so be ready to refocus attention back to yourself.

Take a stand: If you are losing your audience, simply ask them to stand and stretch for a moment.  The momentary flexing of muscles works well to refocus attention, especially if you are presenting in a long line of speakers.  The audience will appreciate the break, and you’ll get fresher attention.

Questions: Don’t save them until the end.  Take questions throughout your presentations.  Make sure to repeat the questions so that everyone can know the question asked.  Ask the questioners to give their names and then you can repeat them later in your presentation.

Charles Greene

Charles Greene

Audience attention levels will naturally rise and fall during a presentation.  Good presenters will vary their presentation elements.  However, great presenters will strategically structure attention-getting tactics into their presentations to lift their audience’s attention levels to new heights.  Work as many of these tactics as possible into your talk and the only nodding heads you’ll see are those that agree with your message.

Charles Greene III, Presentation Magician CharlesGreene.com


Published On: 27th Feb 2012

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1 Comment
  1. Great tips for those of us who fall into the routine of using the same presentation over and over. I plan on using the idea of calling on individuals “in class” during my next presentation!
    Thanks Charles

    Sean Feehan 28 Feb at 11:15 pm