Reaching Your Presentation Audience with Neuroscience

By Julie M. Hansen

In order for your prospect to hear and remember your presentation, you must have her attention. To do so, you must understand what influences attention and apply that knowledge to the structure of your presentation. Neuroscience is discovering more and more every day about how people pay attention and what they pay attention to.

Here is what you need to keep in mind as you develop your presentation:

  • Attention spans are on the decline. If a web page doesn’t load within eight seconds, most people abandon ship. Sitting through commercials during a show? No thank you, say the millions who prefer to record or pay for services to avoid them all together. Studies indicate that attention spans have declined as much as 50 percent in the last decade. Blame it on increased responsibilities, the amount of information available, and the 24/7 news cycle, but whatever the cause, the outcome for your presentation is the same: You need a structure that makes it easy for you to gain and regain your prospect’s attention — because after you’ve lost her attention, you’ll struggle the remainder of the presentation to get it back.

  • Sustained attention is between 5 and 20 minutes. Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one thing. Of course, you can pay attention for longer periods of time, either by the application of willpower (I am going to finish my taxes today if it kills me!) or by having your attention renewed, a technique used frequently in events that last longer than a few minutes, like movies, sporting events, or political speeches.

  • Big data is everyone’s problem. Big data, the overwhelming volume of information available today, isn’t just a problem for organizations. Individuals too have to deal with their own big data on a daily basis — processing, analyzing, storing, and often acting on thousands of pieces of information each day. Earlier pre-cellphone generations didn’t have to contend with it. Yet most sales presentations continue to use a presentation structure invented well before the cellphone — much less smartphone — existed.

  • Multitasking is commonplace. Up until recent years, multitasking — doing several activities at once — was a term reserved for computers; now it’s not unusual for people to talk on the phone while checking email or even driving while texting. Even though experts have proven that humans’ brains aren’t designed for multitasking, in fact, multitasking actually causes you to be less effective and increases stress levels in your brain, many people — your prospect included — persist in the delusion that it makes them more productive.

  • Attention isn’t a constant. Attention isn’t something that you win once and then forget. Research shows that your audience’s attention is at its peak during the first few seconds of your presentation and goes downhill from there, reaching its lowest point within 10 minutes. Yet 10 minutes into a presentation, many salespeople are talking about their company, introducing data, or discussing features — none of which is capable of reeling attention back in or keeping your prospect’s mind from further wandering. You can avoid this by using a structure that takes into account what grabs and maintains an audience’s attention and includes consideration for renewing waning attention. I discuss specific how-to tips in the following section.

  • Difficulty decreases attention. Your capacity to pay attention decreases the more difficult the information or the greater the amount of learning required. That’s because your brain is a muscle, and trying to master new information or pay close attention to complex ideas and concepts gives it a workout. The harder the workout, the faster the brain tires and the less effective it becomes at absorbing new information. When presenting a complex idea, you must take into account the reduced ability of your audience to pay attention for longer periods of time and work in breaks or transition to a lighter topic.

  • Brains take shortcuts. In order to try and quickly make sense of all the information coming at you, your brain quickly scans the information and decides what to do with it. If you’re familiar with the topic, your brain decides that you’re safe and doesn’t need to pay full attention to it. Without this filtering device, your brain would soon be so full of irrelevant information that you’d be unable to focus on a single task. This filtering device works against you if you do what everyone else does in a presentation. For example, if you open your presentation with the same old “we’re so happy to be here, let me tell you about my company,” you can count on lower attention levels as your audience member’s brains conserve energy for more novel subjects.

Salespeople who account for the realities of how their prospect pays attention today and structure their presentation for maximizing that attention and increasing recall have a distinct advantage over the competition and give their proposal a much greater chance for a successful outcome.