How to Speak to an Audience with the Attention Span of a Gnat

IMG00053When I first started out as a stand up trainer working with sales groups, I heard a piece of advice. The senior facilitator told me that sales people “don’t seminar well.' I quickly learned what that meant. Sales representatives would start drumming their fingers and tapping their feet. They didn't like sitting still. Fast forward to today and the foot tapping has been replaced by keyboarding and reading smart phones. It’s no longer sales people who are tuning out. It's everybody. We’re living in an A.D.D world. Video ads move more quickly with the best ads changing frames every 4 seconds. So how do you capture an audience with the attention span of a gnat?

Hook. Grab attention from the very beginning with a hook and a promise. Lead with an opening question, statement or story that speaks to their pain points or deepest desires. They don’t care about you or your lengthy bio. Take care of the credibility piece with a brief introduction and then hit the ground running. Speak to their self interests.

Ignite Interest. Tell them something they don’t know and share your wisdom. Information is free and plentiful but wisdom is at a premium. Pique their curiosity. What have you learned from the trenches? Connect the dots for them. Explain how your message impacts their world and they will continue to listen.

Engage. The days of the talking head are over. Adults want to be involved and engaged. Getting an audience physically and mentally involved is the secret to keeping them with you. Take them on a journey through storytelling to create an experience. Have them repeat a phrase. Ask for a show of hands. Engage in polling software. Call for a volunteer. Create a paired exercise. Effective public speaking is about engagement.

Keep it Moving. More than ever before, a slow paced lecture will cause people to check out.  A great public speaker keeps an active pace and keeps changing it up. Show a slide, share an anecdote, pose a question.

The brain cannot sustain attention indefintely. It drifts in and out. To keep the audience with you, keep it moving. A rule of thumb in the training world is to change something every seven minutes. For a speech, it may require more frequent changes. Great speakers pick up the pace and keep the momentum going.

Passion. It’s easy to mentally dismiss a dispassionate public speaker but it’s harder to disengage from a passionate presenter. Keep stoking the fire in your belly. Find the parts of your talk that most excite you and speak from that place. Don’t be afraid you’ll over do it. You won’t. Enthusiasm is contagious and the audience will want to engage with your energy.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em. For those diehards whose hands are attached to their smart phones, invite them to tweet. I now start most of my talks with my twitter handle, @speakingpro.

They may be listening with their thumbs but at least they’re engaged.