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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Control Your Audience's Attention To Become Successful Speaker

There are a number of factors which affect attention, and can be used to control the audience's attention. These are variety, the length of time concentration is needed, the time of day, and the amount of arousal and motivation the speaker can communicate to the listeners. Motivation, in turn, is affected by the audience’s sense of security, how much their natural responses are repressed, and how much enthusiasm the speaker shows. Let me deal with each of these factors in turn, to give you some ideas about how to control the audience’s attention.

The first important fact to grasp is that attention is very little under voluntary control. The audience cannot make themselves listen—they must be interested. Psychologists tell us that attention is controlled by a deep part of the brain which operates subconsciously. Attention is automatically switched-off by repetitive stimuli:

If, for example, you are in a room with a clock that is ticking quietly you will quickly habituate to the sound so that after a short while you will no longer hear it. But the sound is still being continually monitored by the brain, and if the clock were suddenly to stop, or to change speed or volume, you would immediately notice it.

A good speaker knows this, and arouses questing interest in the audience by providing a continual variety of stimuli. He or she keeps them alert by varying the input of ideas, and gives them continual change in the pauses, speed and volume of his or her voice. A speaker should not blame the audience if they nod-off, or their attention wanders. They are responding to simple physiological mechanisms; the fault is the speaker’s for not being aware of these facts, and not negotiating around them in the techniques of his presentation.

The second factor which affects the audience’s attention is the sheer length of time they are expected to listen. In the first few minutes of a presentation everyone is listening. As time goes on the pressures from other thoughts gradually increases. It depends to some extent on the level of training and discipline in the listeners, but the speaker should always be aware of the way the demands he is making on the audience increase with time. One piece of research by MacManaway reported that 84% of students said that twenty to thirty minutes was the maximum length of time they could listen to a lecture without wandering. This means that the speaker should provide pauses, and increasing variety, as the talk gets longer. The vital points are best made early in the talk, when you can count on more attention. Gradually working up to the important point through an hour long maze of details, may gain nothing. By the time you are ready to triumphantly announce your answer, most of the audience will be thinking of something else.

If we are to be effective communicators we should understand, not blame, the audience’s natural characteristics. There is no point in battling valiantly against the natural effect of growing inattention. The solution is to provide breaks, variety and interesting changes throughout the talk. Otherwise the discomfort of sitting still will break through as interest flags; this is signaled by a rash of scratching and shifting about in the chairs.

Very high levels of discomfort are produced by forced attention to uninteresting material. Indeed, some members of the audience may develop gestures of extreme misery, such as dropping their heads into their hands, and even groaning quietly to themselves! A considerate speaker (considerate, that is, for his own success as well as for the audience’s comfort) will alleviate the misery. Variety, both in the material and in the presentation, is the best method. But variety can only be used at the right time if the speaker first learns to be sensitive to the audience’s mood. The sheer length of time listeners must pay attention is an important factor in the equation that measures their ability to listen.

The third factor which affects attention is the simple matter of the time of day when the talk is being presented. The speaker must think in advance about the effect of time of day on his audience. It is not just the personal experience of the lazy, but a psychological fact that people’s intellectual sharpness varies during the day, in response to internal biological rhythms. Both body temperature and hormone levels change in a rhythmic cycle. Most people are at their best in the morning, but some people do not reach their peak until midday, or even during the afternoon. Most people have a low in body temperature and hormone level during the mid afternoon, and are therefore likely to be sleepy, and find it difficult to concentrate.

The day of the week will also affect how easy it is for the audience to concentrate. Almost everyone is better on a Tuesday than on a Friday. Even the disciplined hard workers are feeling the effects of tiredness by the end of the week. These effects are very real, and should not be dismissed as softness. Research showed that a prolonged period of monotony interferes “with the ability to make decisions at a fairly high cortical level.” Monotony interferes just as badly with the ability to listen intelligently. The speaker must provide greater variety and stimulation for an afternoon presentation, or one at the fag-end of the week. On Tuesday morning he can afford to rely on his audience’s concentration more.

The fourth of the factors which affect attention is the psychological state of the audience while they are listening. The state of mind of listeners can be separated into their arousal, and their motivation. The speaker must be continually aware of the twin factors. Arousal is a technical term in psychology for the level of alertness, the biochemical tone and readiness. It affects the whole performance of the brain, increasing the transmission rates in the neurons, making the person more alert and more receptive. Motivation helps arousal. A highly motivated person is more prepared to understand and remember.

Levels of arousal have been compared to an inverted ‘U’ curve, where performance levels rise as arousal increases, but dissolve in chaos as arousal gets too high. Most people spend most of their life in the restricted performance, low arousal part of the curve. Speakers spend much of their time in the hyper-active, anxious and over-aroused part of the curve. The art is to get both speaker and audience on the peak performance part of the curve. For listeners, it usually means awaking their interest, arousing them, by energy and variety.