When does an Audience Stop Listening?

By Lou Solomon

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Think about the last time someone held the conference room, board room, or ballroom in the palm of their hand and engaged listeners for the perfect amount of time—with a moment or two so real it was undeniable that something very different had just happened.



When does an audience stop listening to your presentation?How to Determine the Length of Your Presentation

With so much to gain, the majority of people still don’t put the heart into their communication required to pull that off. Here’s the paradox: Most people speak too long! This means that, if you just speak less, you’ll stand out.

Brevity in itself is a tool of connection. We are more likely to hear what you say if you say it briefly.

But before you decide how long you’re going to speak, consider the following:

  1. Step up your presentation game.

    • If for some reason you don’t know about TED talks, stop reading this article and go immediately to TED.com. You will learn why TED talks have raised the standard for presentations by showcasing some of the most provocative and inspiring speakers in the world who not only inform and entertain us—they reconnect us with the power and art of oral communication. They put their heart into their communication.
  2. Distill your message.

    • One of the reasons TED talks are so listenable is their length: 18 minutes. Early on, the folks at TED found that given 18-minutes, speakers who are used to lecturing for 45 minutes have to really think about what they want to say to bring it down to 18 minutes. They can hold the attention of listeners with a compelling message.
  3. Break it up.

    • Author Dr. John Medina takes it a step further. He suggests that if you must speak longer than 10 minutes, become a facilitator of dialogue to engage members of your audience. Get them moving, thinking, and talking. Break up your talk or lesson plan into 10-minute segments and use stories, videos, exercises, and discussion. If you can’t do this, or you haven’t developed your own TED talk, speak for no more than 10 minutes at the Rotary Club. They may offer you 20 but insist on 10.
  4. Make it a novel.

    • In other words, tell a story. Humanize the content. Use words that evoke imagery. Too often speakers with technical topics feel they have to present a textbook, which can put the audience into a coma. No matter what your field, think of your talk as a historical novel: compelling facts + rich language + feelings. You can always offer folks a complete technical document as a follow-up.
  5. Rethink Your PowerPoint Presentation.

    • If your slides look like eye charts you will fall short of an engaging presentation—every time. Notice what TED speakers do with just a few slides. They use images in an understated way to reinforce what they are saying. Take a tip from Dr. Richard Mayer whose research on multi-media learning shows why most of us use slides ineffectively if our goal is meaningful learning. And occasionally, drop PowerPoint altogether. Remember that you are your best visual.
  6. Get creative.

    • Don’t do it the way the last speaker did it. For example, at Interact Studio we’ve produced programs that follow the interview format done so richly by James Lipton, host of the Bravo cable television series Inside the Actors Studio. Guests are relaxed and audience members feel like they are sitting in on an intimate conversation with dear friends.



Some Closing Thoughts


Whatever you do, don’t settle for being that speaker who blew an opportunity with a long, mediocre presentation. It’s time to put your heart into your communication.