How to Engage Attention — and Why It’s So Hard to Do

Author: Casey Gale       

People spend roughly half of their waking hours — 47 percent of the time, to be exact — thinking about something other than the task they are performing, according to a Harvard University study. That means only 53 percent of people are actually paying attention at any given moment, according to Justyn Comer, cofounder of the meditation organization RWM Education, Inc. Skeptical? Comer suggests meditating for a few minutes: breathe in, breathe out, focus on your breath, and consider how frequently your mind roams to other subjects.

That sounds like bad news for those who are trying to engage an audience at a business event. But starting from this knowledge, Comer writes in his book, Meditation for Life: How Mind Training Improves Relationships, Career, Health, and Happiness,  can help speakers consider how to better hold attendees’ attention.

“If you accept that everyone’s minds are all over the place, and you want to hold their attention,” Comer writes, use curiosity as a way to engage attention. And lay off the endless slideshows, he advises.

“Use PowerPoint as it was intended — a presentation aid,” he writes. “Put up images instead of words. Words either a) get them reading your slide, which means they’re not paying attention to what you’re saying or more likely, b) send everyone straight to sleep. Using images is a simple but powerful presentation trick where you create intrigue.”

Another way to hold attendees’ attentions is to simply tune in to who is listening and who isn’t. Starting the session with the knowledge that only half the audience will remain focused allows the presenter to take note when audience members start nodding off.

“When you are aware of how difficult it is to hold focus, you will then pay close attention to whether you still have the audience’s focus, or whether you have lost it,” Comer writes. One powerful presentation trick is for the presenter to take a pause when they know they’ve lost the audience. “You don’t necessarily stop the presentation, but pause,” Comer writes. “Pause for a slightly uncomfortably long time. Provided people are not fully asleep, they will suddenly be interrupted from whatever mental path they were going down and look at you. If they were truly lost in thought, they are now wondering what you just said. They may even worry that you asked them a question while they weren’t paying attention. For a few seconds at least, you will once again have everyone’s attention.”

Pausing for a moment — it sounds simple— but it’s also hard to do. Let us know if this has worked for you, or other tips for getting and holding audience attention. 

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