Five Presentation Tips to Engage Today's Attention-Challenged Audiences

I recently had the privilege of creating the opening speech for a conference of 600 clothiers. On one end of the spectrum, there were seasoned veterans who had attended these meetings for decades and had heard it all before. At the other end were new hires, some with the company only a matter of weeks. Most of them were recent college graduates, weaned on MTV and video games.

Since this presentation was the conference kick-off, it was going to set the tone for the entire week. That meant it needed to be engaging and hold the interest of this very diverse audience -- an audience that, like any other, has a rather limited attention span. In fact, the attention span of audiences today is about five minutes.

Wired Magazine refers to this phenomenon as the "snack culture" of America. That is, with the advent of the I-pod, IMs, Twitter and two-minute movies on YouTube, we now prefer our information presented to us in bite-sized pieces. So what is a presenter or speaker to do? How can you keep an audience engaged when no one wants to listen any more? Here are five easy-to-implement tips to hold their attention and get your message across.

1. Go with the flow. Don't fight the fact that people today prefer snack-size information. In fact, embrace it, and intersperse your presentation with pertinent short video clips, music, and cartoons. In this particular opening speech, I included brief (20 sec to 1 min) video clips, photos, and music clips every 3 to 4 minutes. You can find many royalty-free sources on the web, such as,,, and, of course,

2. Fun facts. Start your presentation off by discussing an interesting and unusual (but relevant) fact. For example, at a recent veterinarian tech workshop, the speaker began by talking about the household items dogs swallow most often. (FYI: pantyhose, socks and underwear.) It's obvious how relevant this was to the audience, and it was also interesting enough to generate lots of discussion as well. You can find odd facts pertaining to just about any topic, especially on the internet. Try,, The Book of Lists or The Guinness Book of World Records.

3. Use props. Believe it or not, you don't always have to use PowerPoint when doing a presentation. In fact, the best presenter I've ever seen didn't use it. He used props instead.

Bob Sherrer is an executive at Tom James, a custom clothing company, so for his presentation, he brought five coats from different periods in his life. These included his high school letterman's jacket, his army uniform from the Korean war, his very first sport coat, a bright red polyester blazer from the 70s when he started with the company, and a very expensive custom made suit jacket that he currently wears.

The jackets were on mannequins, and as he went down the row of them, he put on the coat and told stories about experiences that he had during each period in his life. He also explained how each coat reflected an important theme. (For example, the letterman's jacket was about working hard for what you want.)

The props made the presentation come alive in a tangible way that pictures or slides never could have managed. So before you start preparing your next batch of slides, stop and consider if there are any actual items you could use that would be more powerful.

4. Pop quiz. Who doesn't love a good Cosmo-esque quiz that tells you what your nail polish color says about you? These kinds of questionnaires are an enjoyable and non-threatening way to break the monotony of a long seminar. You can find entertaining quizzes dealing with communication skills and a variety of business topics on many free web sites, such as, or You can also take material from your notes and create one of your own at In fact, you can also use these questions as a creative outline for your presentation.

5. Funny photos. Take a look at any website or book giving you presentation advice, and they all say the same thing: tell a joke. The problem is that not everyone is funny, and, really, a poorly told joke or one that falls flat is worse than no joke at all. A great way for unfunny people to get laughs is to include funny photos.

For example, work in old photos of yourself and your colleagues. In fact, the more dated the hairstyle and the trendier the clothes, the better. Nothing says the '80s quite like a mullet and a skinny black tie!

You can also have people joke around for the camera. My favorite was a snapshot of a (male) VP of Sales in a pair of shorts and a coconut bra. The audience howled with laughter. It relaxed everyone and made this potentially intimidating executive more human as well.

Always remember: an entertained audience is an attentive audience! Want more tips for giving great presentations? See our Special Report: "How to Give Powerful Presentations that Get You Noticed and Leave Your Audience Wanting More."

Reprinted from The Corporate Communicator, a free e-zine dedicated to helping professionals communicate more effectively with employees, customers and the media. To get the latest industry news, research and best practices at your fingertips, register for a FREE subscription at

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