How long do you need to hold an audience’s attention?

presentationsIt’s intriguing… One of the things I was told when I started teaching last year was that students have a very short attention span. It took me a while to accept this. How could I possibly be so boring that they didn’t want to listen to me for more?

I haven’t got it cracked, but now I am dividing even long classes (some of mine are four hours) into 50 minute slots with 10 minute breaks, then broken down into 5 or so sections – thereby reducing them into chunks of around 10 minutes maximum. As I say, I’m not perfect but I can see the benefit.

A colleague pointed out that I enjoy TED talks and that their basic unit was 8 minutes. You’ll see what’s coming….

I really don’t see why speakers at a conference, given 8 minutes (and knowing that this was how long they would have months in advance), can’t even finish their introduction!

Giving a presentation is NOT about communicating the whole of your other media – such as a conference paper, a company report, a strategic plan, a marketing proposal, or whatever. It is an opportunity to persuade others that what you have to offer is worth further study. Of course, there will be occasions where you suspect that no-one will bother – in which case, perhaps you need to examine what you were doing in the first place. There will also be situations where this is not the norm – you will be a trendsetter. It’s a risk you take; Do I fail to get my ideas examined, or do I bore the decision makers silly so that they wouldn’t support them anyway?

This isn’t difficult. If you are preparing a presentation, ask yourself what is RELEVANT, INSPIRING, adds CREDIBILITY, and INTRIGUES. Often, a simple human story can convey far more than a lengthy treatise – or even ‘five-tips’ types of talk.

Yesterday, I listened to Lord Bilimoria speaking about the importance of CEOs understanding and acting on their personal values. He began by telling us about his family – his father and his religion. He told us about how his father lived out his values. He then explained how he himself had first been challenged to live up to his own, how he had felt about himself having done so, and thus how he continued to behave in this way. Finally, he drew to a conclusion extrapolating the same challenge to the audience. He did this slowly, with a clear voice that anyone could follow. His total time was 7 minutes.

Cheers, Graham

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