The Attention Tension (How to Capture and Engage your Audience)

In November 2015 I experienced Times Square for the first time. It was incredible and at the same time, overwhelming.

As I looked up at the magnitude of New York City, I was immediately bombarded by the billboards and banners surrounding me encouraging me to ‘buy this’, ‘have this’, ‘eat this’, ‘want this’ and ‘see this’. 

I found myself caught up in the ‘tension of attention. The pull between all the competing forces all contending for my focus.

As a presenter or leader, we face this tension every time we speak. In every room there are opposing forces competing for the attention of our audience.

  • Email & Social Media Notifications 
  • Temperature & Room Setup 
  • Uncomfortable seating 
  • Lighting & Technical Issues
  • Hunger

Just to name a few. Great communicators and leaders understand the importance of developing strategies right from the start to engage and capture the attention of their audience to ensure their message gets heard.

Here are four simple and effective strategies to capture the attention of your audience at the start of your next presentation:  

1. Ask a Question

When we hear a question, our brain can’t help but contemplate the answer. Beginning your presentation with the right question can be a powerful tool in capturing the attention of your audience. David Hoffeld author of The Science of Selling: Proven Strategies to Make Your Pitch, Influence Decisions, and Close the Deal discusses what happens when the brain hears a question:

“Questions trigger a mental reflex known as ‘instinctive elaboration.’ When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else.”

Questions make us think. When we think we engage. Knowing how to ask the right questions will come from a deep understanding the problems and challenges people in your audience face. 

2. Make a Statement 

Making a bold statement leads your audience to pause and consider “what do I think about this?” 

When an audience considers their own thoughts in relation to a topic, they find themselves engaged in the conversation. This in turn evokes curiosity and a desire to hear more about what you think and why you think that way. This opening may be a statement of belief, a big idea or a presentation of some compelling data. The key is ensuring this statement or statistic evokes thinking around your planned topic of discussion.

The infamous speech by Martin Luther King, Jr may be well known for the words “I have a dream” but it’s bold opening statement is equally as powerful, given the time in which it was spoken:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

3. Share a Story 

Research by Neuroscientist Paul Zak suggests that “character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later”.

If you have ever had the privilege of speaking to a room full of people, you will understand the power of effective storytelling. As a speaker, the posture of the room changes when you begin to share a story. People who were once distracted or fidgeting in their chair begin to lean in, focus and hang on every your every word. We are hardwired for stories to learn and engage. In the words of Carmine Gallo, author of ‘Talk Like Ted’, “If you want people to pay attention to you, wrap your idea in a story”.

The story you share may come from personal experience, it may be through observation or could be a fictional story shared as a parable or illustration. The key is ensuring your story supports your key message. If people remember your story, but forget the point, something went wrong along the way.

4. Throw a Curveball   

Do something unexpected. Leverage the power of surprise. 

In her INKtalk ‘A Powerful Lesson on Surprise’, Tania Luna explores the idea that when people are surprised by something or someone, the brain initiates the “surprise sequence”.

“It’s a strong neuro alert that tells us that something is important about this moment and we have to pay attention. Our cognitive resources are basically hijacked and pulled into the moment. That’s one of the things that’s really uncomfortable for some people, but also exciting for some people because your attention is completely in the moment.”

If you notice the attention of your audience is being pulled away, try doing something different. This could be something as simple as getting down off the stage and walking into the crowd or utilising props and visual aids to help illustrate your point.

I’m not sure we will ever be able to escape the ‘attention tension’. We will always have to compete for the attention of those we speak to…BUT…I do believe that if we have the right strategies, it is a competition we can win.