By: Sonali Raval

Do you know that the average attention span of a human is less than that of a goldfish? Wait, you had heard that already, but you forgot, didn’t you? I know I did.

In 2015, a Microsoft led study concluded that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000, to eight seconds over the last 15 years. The same researchers also found that the ability of humans to multitask has improved.

Your job as a speaker is getting more difficult with each passing year. Your audience is now checking the stock market, texting their family, dispensing a treat on their connected dog app, maybe even taking a selfie while they are supposedly listening to you. Phew! Is it any wonder that you now have to work twice as hard to capture their attention? No matter how good you already are, you will have to skill up your game significantly.

#1 Have a conversation

I work with a business leader who captivates audiences. Every time he makes a speech, he steals the show. Audiences can’t have enough of him, and other speakers prefer not to take the stage after him. I asked people why they love him, and the universal response is he makes them feel like they are having a personal conversation, the message directed specially to them.

If, like him, you want your audience’s unwavering attention, converse with your audience, don’t just talk at them. Speak, then pause and listen. Keep your audience active and focused on you, making them a part of your speech.

Here are some easy and fun techniques we use to involve the audience:

  • have a show of hands
  • use technology to conduct an “in-room” live poll
  • leave some blanks on your slides and invite the audience to guess or fill these in
  • ask for volunteers to help you demonstrate a process
  • after you share an idea, give them a minute to practice it
  • share an idea, and ask the audience how they would apply it to their own situation

#2 Tell a Story

I heard you groan, didn’t I? It seems like storytelling is the new “it thing”, and everyone wants in on it. Yes, that’s because it works.

Everyone loves a good story. It’s the earliest form of human communication. Stories are how children first learn to understand the world around them, and it works just as well later in life. So, use a story to set up your theme, weave a thread through your speech, and direct your audience’s attention to your key messages.

Recently, I was prepping a speaker who wanted to showcase the value of industry ecosystems as enablers of the Internet of Things. To set up this assertion, we told a story from India’s struggle for independence. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, aka India’s first revolt against British rule, may never have come to fruition if in 1851 the East India Company had not laid the foundation of a railway network in the country. For decades, there had been escalating unrest among various sections of Indian nationalists, and it was manifest as isolated small-scale protests scattered across the country. These uprisings had failed to capitalize on each other’s momentum – for lack of communication and coordination.

The Sepoy Mutiny began in the barracks in Meerut, when the soldiers rebelled against the use of cow and pig grease on bullets. At any other time, this is where it would have started and ended – but this time was different. The railway network – which connected a few major cities in the northern and central parts of India – enabled news of the uprising to spread. It also allowed for congregation of the various mutiny leaders in a short period of time, and transformed a localized mutiny into India’s first war for independence.

We then drew a parallel between this episode and how different industry clusters are going to ride the network (internet) and collaborate to build the Internet of Things. This helped the listeners to visualise the network as an enabler of ecosystems and growth.

#3 Timing is Everything

The way people process information is changing. A 2010 study asked students to self-report lapses in attention while attending three lectures, with different speakers and teaching styles.

The results revealed a pattern of attention loss, with “spikes” at

  • 30 seconds into the lecture, indicating a “settling in” period
  • about five minutes after the initial distraction
  • seven to nine minutes into the lecture
  • nine to ten minutes in, just a couple of minutes after the last spike

I have found that it is possible to keep your audience engaged, when you use attention-heightening techniques to counteract these attention lapses. Nudge the audience into active listening by varying the tone and pace of your delivery. Display a striking visual or write on a flip-board to keep their eyes focused on you. The conversational / interaction tactics we discussed earlier work particularly well at these times.

3 keys infograph
If you are going to remember just one thing from this article, let it be this. You will deliver an engaging speech if you never forget one thing – they are not just your audience, they are people first. Connect with them like you would your coworkers and friends, and you will earn their attention and interest. They may even come back to hear you speak again!

© Sonali Raval, Storyteller. 2016

Sonali Raval is a storyteller who has helped global leaders like Cisco, Ericsson and Quintiles bring their stories to life. She creates content and coaches business leaders to elevate their personal brands. If you want to know her story, head to

Sonali Raval

B2B tech marketing writer


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