Aug 26, 2012

Brain Rules for Presenters - #4 Attention

I am currently reading Brain Rules by John Medina. It is an excellent book about how our brain works and it has important lessons for everyone. John Medina is a molecular biologist who has shared 12 rules about how our brain works. He calls these brain rules. His rules are based on proper research. I will be sharing some of these rules here which are relevant for presenters. This is the first post about this book.

Rule #4 Attention: We don't pay attention to boring things

What has John Media said:

1) If we pay complete attention, we learn better. We remember better and remember more accurately.

2) Our attention span is only 10 minutes.

3) We pay attention to things we can relate to. We pay attention to things we like or are important to us. We pay attention to something unusual or unexpected. We pay attention when we get emotional. John Medina says, "Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events." This basically means that emotions get our attention.

4) We remember only the meaning or the gist of something. We do not remember too many details.

What it means for presenters and speakers:

The 10 minute rule: As presenters we need to remember that our audience will not be able to pay attention for more than 10 minutes. So we must try to present within 10 minutes. In case it is not possible, we must try to do something in the 10th minute of our presentation in order to buy another 10 minutes of our audience. Here are a few suggestions: a) Play a video just when the 10 minute mark is coming. b) Give a task to the audience. Some kind of exercise. c) Share a story with them. d) Invite a different speaker on stage. What all you can do will vary from presentation to presentation. Just remember that if something is not done in the 10th minute, you will lose your audience. Since they are not paying attention any more, they will not remember anything you say.

Meaning before details (Point 4 above): As per John Medina the brain seeks meaning first. Hence we must share the gist of the concept first to our audience. If you are a teacher and you are teaching a new topic. First give them a summary of what it is. Then add details on top of it.

Appeal to emotions: In order to get maximum attention of your audience, you need to touch them emotionally. Make them feel something. Fear, love, happiness, nostalgia, make them laugh or make them cry. Add this emotional angle to your presentation (even if it is a business presentation). Sales presentations can be passionate which gives your team members goosebumps. If you are an NGO, you can share a story of a girl your NGO is helping. What she has been through and how much she is in need of help. It is all about making your presentation more human.

Know your audience: We pay attention to things we can relate to. We pay attention to things we like or find important. As presenters, if we know what our audience likes and what is important to them, we can use it to get their attention. Examples and stories used in our presentation will be more 'relevant' and will thus get more attention. When teaching a class of Indian marketing students, should you give examples of Indian brands or American? The more we know our audience, the better we can customise our presentation.

Brain Rules by John Medina is highly recommended for everyone. Click here to buy/know more: Amazon (US) HomeShop18 (India) Amazon (UK).


  1. Hi vivek,
    As a student How I can add emotions to a formal presentation.Can you help me out?

  2. @Manimegalai

    Interesting question. Thanks.

    Why don't you share an example of a formal presentation where you would like to add emotions?

    It is better to discuss concrete situations than wonder about theory.

    Awaiting your response.

  3. Yes Sir. I can say you a scenario, In college we had a presentation where we should be a spokesperson for a Fortune 500 company and persuade the audience to invest in my company. In this case how we can add emotions?

  4. What things one should concentrate while making a presentation to a client in an organization ?

  5. hi vivek,

    Audience are attracted to various subjects, but when topics containing lots of statistical data are presented the audience seem exhausted to the end. How exactly do we make those topics interesting to the audience?

  6. Hey vivek, which sort of slides get more attention from brain either picture oriented or text oriented?

  7. @Manimegalai

    I have three more questions for you. 1) What kind of emotions you want to add? 2) Why? and 3) Why do you think your current presentation is devoid of these emotions?

  8. @Sai Gautham

    It is a very generic question and needs a long answer. Can you first elaborate on your question. Will help to know what situation are you talking about.

  9. @suchetha

    Slides which contain pictures always get more attention. Just ensure the picture is large enough and relevant to the topic. The picture also needs to be clear (not pixellated). Low resolution images, when stretched on a slide become hazy (pixellated).

  10. @Melodepop

    First, make the data interesting.

    Second, do not keep on presenting one data after another. Imagine 10 slides with 10 bar charts. Given them some break between two data slides.

    Third, if there is too much data, you can actually present only the gist and ignore the chart/graph. Upon request, you can show the chart/graph. 10 slides with 10 charts is a bit too much. That is why I say we present the analysis and skip the chart on a few slides. Keep the charts ready and present when asked.