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Managing Attention


Techniques Public speaking > Speaking Tips > Managing Attention

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Managing attention is one of the easiest and hardest things you can do. Gaining attention for a moment is easy, but holding it for several minutes, let alone the duration of a presentation can be difficult.


Contrast is a basic principle of attention management which takes two things and highlights the difference.

Physical contrast acts directly on the senses and instincts. Make a loud sound in a moment of silence. Move suddenly after being still. Flash a light in a darkened room. Even simple movement attracts attention. All such stimulations create automatic reactions and increased alertness.

You can also use verbal contrast. Talk about the difference between what they have and what they could have. Highlight threats to their present safety. Show what others have that they do not.


Grab their interest by talking about things that are important to them. If your subject is not important to them, then make it so, for example by stimulating their needs and showing them the gap between needs unfulfilled and a more satisfactory future.


Prodding other motivators also acts in the same way. You can show them how to achieve their objectives, raise their fears by highlighting threats, anger them by challenging beliefs, and so on. 


Give them a break! When you have their attention, they are expending mental energy, which it tiring. So let them have little mental breaks throughout your talk. Let them relax a bit in transitions, pauses and other spaces in between.

Then grab them all over again.


An audience can be built up with a pattern repeated attention grabs and releases. Storytellers builds overall tension by grabbing attention more often than releasing, then releasing them all in a grand climax.


I start my talk with a single clap and loud greeting. I then ask a question about the safety of the their families, promising to answer it later.


Attention-grabbing is an evolutionary device that pulls our thought towards threats and opportunities. If we attend to the right things, we will survive and thrive (and if not, we will not). Perhaps coincidentally, the word 'attention' contains the word 'tension', which is a core attribute of attention as we tense up until the thing which grabbed our attention is resolved.

A sudden contracts can trigger the fight-or-flight reaction, which spurs us into action. The adrenaline rush created will certainly stimulate us and extreme provocation should be used with care, as a fight, even verbal, is not always desirable in a presentation. Nor is them running away.

See also

Contrast principle, Motivation, Storytelling


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