It’s hard to keep paying attention during a presentation. According to molecular biologist, John Medina, a person’s maximum concentration is ten minutes. And that is, according to Medina, a presentation of ‘medium interest, not too boring and not too exciting.’ Heaven forbid a boring one. Medina suggests that this concentration span is a combination of our culture and our genes – we’re biologically and culturally hardwired to look away after ten minutes.

But there is another factor. The presentation itself. If a presentation is too hard to follow or too dull then the audience will check out. However, an interesting or engaging presentation can break Medina’s rule and hold you for longer, keeping you leaning in until the end. So how do we avoid the latter and achieve the former?

Perhaps a good place to start is to understand what we are trying to achieve. Nearly all presentations are a call to action; to do something, create something, buy something, stop something, learn something. But no matter the presentation topic, the very first aim is to remember the presentation; to move the information from the screen to our long-term memory. The capacity for storing knowledge in our long-term memory is virtually unlimited – secure your presentation in the audience’s long-term memory and you’re one step closer to succeeding in your call to action. The problem is that between your screen and that goal is the audience’s short-term, or working, memory, which is much more limited at holding information.

The capacity of information the working memory can hold is called its cognitive load. And it doesn’t take long for that capacity to overload, leading to a lack of concentration. In order to avoid overload, the brain needs to integrate the information into its long-term memory – locking it in for good – or minimise the amount of information entering the working memory in the first place.

However, you actually have two cognitive loads – auditory (spoken words and sounds) and visual (written words and images). The way you process, organise and ultimately integrate auditory and visual information is along separate channels. By spreading the information we want to deliver across both these channels we can help manage the cognitive load of each.

There is, though, an even earlier step. That is knowing what information to process in the first place. According to the familiarity heuristic, the brain is much more likely to focus on and recall information that is familiar to us or connects back to things we already know. It’s part of the reason we don’t remember jargon – it is quite literally unfamiliar to us, and so harder to remember. Rather information that fits with the mental models in our long-term memory is much more likely to stick.

So. What do we know? Working memory has a finite cognitive load. This cognitive load is split across two channels – auditory and visual. And, both of these channels are more likely to retain more familiar information.

So how can we use this knowledge to help keep our audience concentrating?

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

A lot of presenters feel an urge to show everything on the screen. To create what Garr Reynold’s in Presentation Zen refers to as a ‘slideument’, an ugly hybrid that tries to be a slide to be presented and a document to be digested in your own time. The result is an information heavy behemoth that maxes out the brain’s visual cognitive load.
Instead spread the information across the processing channels. Narrate the text – so that it is processed along the auditory channel – and present the supporting information visually with graphs, graphics and visuals. By splitting the information up you are reducing the cognitive load on both channels.

So, for your next presentation, try and tailor the way you present to drive up concentration. Spread the load across the processing channels; pretrain the audience to complex models and analysis; and double up the most important points visually and aurally

Make the unfamiliar, familiar

In his book the presentation secrets of Steve Jobs, communication expert, Carmine Gallo, suggests a lot of entrepreneurs fail to secure venture capital funding because their pitch focusses too much on the solution of their product – what’s new – without first highlighting the existing problem – connecting the new product back to what they already know. As Gallo quotes one investor, ‘you need to create a space in my brain to hold the information you’re about to deliver.’

The same can be said about presentations. Especially research presentations. In order to answer complex client briefs we need to employ complex techniques; conjoint; thematic analysis; brand equity models to name just a few. But when we present these findings back to the client, we can’t just jump into the results of, say, the conjoint. We first have to make space in their brain for the new information.

We have to make the unfamiliar analysis familiar by clearly and simply explaining the process, why it’s important, and why it’s effective and relevant before we go into the results. Otherwise, we risk losing the audience. To paraphrase Gallo, we need to give them a cup before we start pouring the coffee. In this way, we are pretraining the audience’s brain, helping to create cognitive models into which the new information can be placed.

If it’s important, make it prominent

Words and language isn’t natural. It’s a learned ability, which takes time to develop and master. Whilst humans do quickly master language, it still requires a large amount of mental processing, for the brain to convert the words into meaning and only then to process that meaning. Rather, humans are visual animals. We process images much more quickly, a phenomenon explained by the picture superiority effect, which suggests we are much more likely to remember information presented through visuals rather than text.

However, the picture superiority effect is only one part of psychologist, Allan Paivio’s, dual-coding theory. In his experiments, he documented the brain’s struggle with text by demonstrating that if information is presented as text we are likely to only recall 10% of it. However, if we exploit both of the brain’s processing channels – auditory and visual – that percentage recalls goes up. When the same information is presented visually through pictures and diagrams (which we know the brain is more adept at processing) and aurally through spoken language, information recall jumps up to 65%. (Note it’s the same information, delivered differently – not written and spoken text, which would drag us back to delivering a ‘slideument’).

You can’t present the same information aurally and visually throughout your presentation as otherwise you’ll overload the brain’s capacity very quickly. But when there’s an important point to hammer home, when you’re getting to the ‘if you remember one thing from this presentation, it’s this’ part of your delivery, present it visually and aurally to maximise the chances of the information being recalled.

So, for your next presentation, try and tailor the way you present to drive up concentration. Spread the load across the processing channels; pretrain the audience to complex models and analysis; and double up the most important points visually and aurally. You may be pleasantly surprised by all the attention you suddenly get.