In the above episode of NBC’s Community, one of the characters tries to help another with her presentation skills. This escalates to some interesting tips, like using attention-grabbing words to refocus an audience. This strategy seems common-sense; people will be attracted to the unexpected words and pay closer attention. The theory behind this is complex, however, and saying some magic words isn’t a safe bet on bringing back your audience.

First, great presenters use this strategy often in various forms, from attention-grabbing imagery, to actually pausing in the middle of presentations. Research shows that this is effective in capturing attention in the same way that seeing a police car’s lights attract you to pay attention to your speed while driving. We see something new and unexpected, so we devote more attention to it.

The problem starts when people rely on this too often. They’ll decide that to maintain attention, you need to do this constantly to refocus. People will naturally get bored every so often, so you should pull them back in. Trying to grab attention every five slides or every ten minutes, however, turns out to be more and more ineffective.

Research shows that by making a deliberate attempt to refocus attention at unexpected intervals, people will pay closer attention, even if they were paying attention in the first place. But doing this repeatedly has a negative effect, like when you’re no longer surprised or interested when the fifth police car races past you to the site of a car crash.

The same research shows that if you try to slip a subliminal hint to refocus attention, you might come up short. Subliminal messages just aren’t as effective as making a deliberate grab for someone’s attention. Think of it this way: you may hope that someone gets the hint that they have some food on their face by nodding at them, but if you just tell them outright, they’ll know for sure what you’re talking about.

So in the end, it may be best not to pepper your speech with token phrases or emphasis. Instead, try to do something deliberate to focus your audience’s attention back where it should be: on you. Use a colorful image, take a pause in your speech, just don’t rely on any one thing, and don’t do it too regularly.

Resources

Pascucci, D., & Turatto, M. (2015). The distracting impact of repeated visible and invisible onsets on focused attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 41(3), 879–92. doi:10.1037/xhp0000025

 

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