In our second piece on designing brain-friendly events, Rachel Shepherd looks at creating presentations that hold your audience’s attention.

You have the attention span of a goldfish. That’s not me throwing around insults for no reason…according to Time magazine, human attention spans have decreased to a mere 8 seconds. Okay, so this was in relation to web browsing, but you get the picture – the Internet is changing the way our brains work and we’re losing our ability to focus. Every day we’re bombarded by content across numerous devices. It’s impossible to escape. All this has made us pretty fickle; we chop and change between stories, videos, and messages at an alarming rate.

Even upon watching Beyoncé’s visual album ‘Lemonade’ for the first time, I found myself checking Whatsapp and browsing the web. If even Queen Bey can’t hold the attention of one of her biggest fans, then it’s no surprise that speakers are struggling in the battle for audience attention.

As event organisers we need to recognise and accept this. It’s vital we consider these changing audience attention spans and needs. It’s our duty to help our speakers design presentations which are brain friendly, engaging, memorable, and can cut through the distractions. Here are 8 ways you can do this…

1. Start strong

 Give your speaker the tools to grab the audience from the get go, and you will be far more likely to hold their attention throughout.

A moment of theatre will start things off with a bang. At a recent event we kicked off with a live demo of Google Tilt Brush, and we’ve used all manner of props, including a presenter arriving on a hoverboard, to get the audience’s attention. Clearly, whatever you do needs to reflect the speaker’s personality and set up their content. Starting with a personal story often works well.

2. Speed is of the essence

Make your presentations as short and concise as possible to ensure they are brain friendly and easy to digest. Whilst I’m not endorsing an 8 second presentation, aim to avoid any presentations that last longer than 15 minutes. (If it has to last longer, see point 4).

Putting extreme time constraints on a presenter will force them to value the audience’s time. Speed presenting formats are one way to do this: Pecha Kucha (20 slides, 20 seconds each), Ignite (20 slides, 15 seconds each), or 5in5 (5 slides across 5 minutes).

3. Make it look amazing

 Make presentations brain-friendly by keeping graphics simple and focusing on brilliant images and key words that enhance what is being said rather than distract the audience. If a presentation is packed full of information you’ll risk ‘Cognitive Loading’ – when unnecessary details use up our brain power and make it more difficult to follow and retain information. Keep it simple and visual, and your audience will find it easier to understand and focus on your content.

4. Don’t go it alone

 Encourage your presenter to share their platform and introduce guest speakers, video content, live demos or panels into their session. This will keep the pace high and a variety of visual and audio stimulus will keep the audience in the moment.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote at this year’s CES showed just how effective this can be. He used multiple guest speakers, live computer game demonstrations, free-runners, drones and more. He was on stage for well over an hour, but each snippet of content was only a few minutes long, and completely different to the one before. This meant the audience were constantly being entertained and their attention never had the chance to waiver.

5. Entertain & surprise

 There should be an inherent excitement to experiencing a live presentation. Inject presentations with fun and surprising moments to entertain your audience, grab their attention, and embrace the power of live.

As part of an event for a global tech company we had a live band on stage throughout, they played all musical intros and stings live, and even interacted with presenters during their presentations. By adding live entertainment to the sessions it created a spectacle which was hard for the audience to ignore.

 6. Make it shareable

 Make sure your audience are only reaching for their phones in order to engage with your presentation by providing content that is easy to share on social media. Using great images is important, but try and work in some great quotes or infographics which can stand alone and have meaning for audiences beyond the auditorium.

7. Involve the audience

 All too often speakers will shy away from involving the audience for fear of losing control. However, your content will really come to life and have a lasting impact if you allow the audience to get involved.

There are many digital engagement tools you can use, but physical participation in the room often causes a stronger reaction than asking people to use a device. Group or paired discussions, voting with hands, or energisers that link to the content, are all great ways of keeping your audience tuned in and helping them to understand and remember your key messages.

8. Keep it simple

Keep content as simple as possible. One of the most common reasons presenters lose audiences is because they over-complicate things.

Make your speaker think about the key message they want people to take away, and why this is of value to the audience. Create a simple structure: introduction / three supporting parts / conclusion. Flesh out the content and think about how you can apply the above points to make it engaging and brain-friendly.


 So, being compared to a goldfish probably isn’t the most welcome news, but taking a more forensic and creative approach to presentation design makes for much better presentations packed full of much more value for your audience.

It’s an exciting time in the events world, and there’s no shortage of inspiration to draw on. Banish the inner goldfish and create highly stimulating, brain friendly, and memorable experiences using the points above.