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Getting an Audience to Pay Attention When They Don’t, Won’t, or Can’t


Guest articles > Getting an Audience to Pay Attention When They Don’t, Won’t, or Can’t


by: Richard Skaare


When I stepped into the classroom of a university course titled “Computer-mediated Communication” as a guest lecturer, I faced approximately 40 students sitting at rows of tables, peering politely at me from behind computer screens, and tapping on keys. I was well prepared to use human-mediated communication (that’s me!) to talk about computer-mediated communication. I was not prepared, however, to compete against another medium.

That situation was not unlike making your way through a choreographed PowerPoint presentation only to realize that many attendees are looking down, not taking notes but checking emails and social networks on their phones. Media competes against media.

I suppose I could have told the students to turn off their machines and listen to me. You could do the same prior to your presentation. But even if they were to store away physical distractions, that does not mean paying attention. Our talking does not equate to the audience listening. People choose to focus on what interests them most at the time: you the presenter, their iPhones, daydreaming, or, in my case, computers.

Rather than becoming a frustrated lecturer, I became inquisitive. I wanted to know:

  • Can humans rapidly switch between two sources of communication and still absorb information?
  • Was the choice either-or: could these students simultaneously link to my messages and to their networks?
  • In short, how could I – how can you — get important message and information into heads with short attention spans?

Here is what I learned – or relearned:

  1. Non-verbals don’t always reflect listening. Sure, there are obvious signs of distraction: a smiling student typing while looking at her computer screen meant an Instant Message had supplanted me; or your audience may suppress yawns. However, most of the time, the audience will appear to be attentive by sitting upright and staring at you. But are they listening? Who knows?
  2. My periodically distracted audience could be exhibiting “continuous partial attention,” a phrase coined by social analyst Linda Stone and particularly applicable to tech-centric young folks. Continuous partial attention involves prioritizing, keeping one source of information such as my remarks as primary but staying accessible and jumping impulsively and often emotionally between any opportunity at the moment – for instance, a rumor on Facebook — that lets people feel connected and alive.
  3. And that’s the third and most important lesson: connecting emotionally unlocks attention. People learn best by connecting with people who connect them with information. If we cannot connect with the speaker at the front of the room talking at us, then we will connect with the people next to us through whispers or with our colleagues and friends through our phone screens — or, in my case, computer screens.

How then do you do you connect emotionally as the presenter when you are one and they are many, when you are standing above them on a stage, when you control the information, and when they know you only as “our esteemed speaker?”

Here are 4 suggestions.

Connect before you present

I made a point of chatting with several students as everyone settled into the classroom. A much better approach is what I was told another guest lecturer does. He greets students as they enter and then uses their names in his remarks and in the Q&A. Smart. Swap names and you start a connection. Try it.

Walk around the room as you present.

Scary, huh? Scary for you as you leave the security of the lectern and your PowerPoints and scary for the audience who doesn’t know what to expect from this unexpected move. Yet surprise spawns attention. The audience pays more attention to you and you pay more attention to their reactions (up close) and can adjust your message and animations accordingly.

Use connected media to connect.

Ask a question and tell those with smartphone browsers to find the answer while you get the audience speculating. Or ask those with Twitter on their phones or laptops to poll their groups for opinions on a particular question, and then read the results to the audience. Link what people know with what you know.

Turn what you know into questions you had to ask yourself in order to know it.

In other words, rather than presenting your findings on a particular topic, insert questions such as, “How could I reconcile this piece of data with that piece? How would you?” Ask two or three people in the audience whom you met earlier how they would answer the question. That will get a discussion rolling, after which flip to the visual that shows your conclusions.


Competing for attention is trying. Yet, trying to control an audience by over-talking, over-informing, and over-PowerPointing results in under-connecting. Remember, you are there not to be a memorable speaker but to make a memorable impression that changes the audience.


Richard Skaare is a strategist, writer, visual thinker, advisor, and implementer of a wide range of organizational, communication, and change issues. His user-first, creative, and pragmatic approach has involved him in diverse challenges including ,in recent years, creating a learning website/portal for a global Saudi Arabian-based company, reorganizing a telecommunications company, building interactive exhibits for a major railroad's museum, coaching medical directors, and recasting marketing for an exhibits company. Skaare writes on organizational and communication issues at

Contributor: Richard Skaare

Published here on: 08-Aug-10

Classification: Communication


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