If You Want a More Attentive Audience, Flip the Focus

If You Want a More Attentive Audience, Flip the Focus


What’s worse: Watching a presentation, or giving one? 

Most of us agree, it’s the latter. Putting together a presentation takes time, creativity, and practice, plus you have to deliver the final product in front of an audience that would rather be playing Candy Crush. 

But we all know the sinking feeling of walking into a presentation. Settling into an uncomfortable chair beneath the fluorescent lights, turning off the Candy Crush, and quietly accepting the fact that we’ll need to pay attention for twenty minutes… an hour… perhaps all eternity, to some anxious executive’s meandering explanation of topics that are mostly irrelevant to our job.

Ask not for whom the smartphone pings. It pings for thee.

I'm more of an online backgammon person myself, but this is so much prettier
I’ll be here for you when this is finally over. That is my promise to you, as long as my batteries hold.

Where is the sense of excitement that animated the ancient Greeks as they filed into a marble-slab auditorium to enjoy the orators of the day? Of course, the philosophers didn’t need to compete with Candy Crush for eyeballs. But even today, people voluntarily watch TED Talks and YouTube’s passel of public intellectuals for hours on end.

Why can’t your presentations inspire the same level of interest? 

They can. You just need to give the audience what it wants. 

Flip the Focus

OK, you probably can’t give the audience what it wants; that’s a job for Netflix. But if you try, you really can give them what they need. 

“Flipping the focus begins with making the content easy for the audience to process,” explains Chainsaw’s Chief Consultant Beth Penland. “It’s like eating kale for most people—they know they should work harder to shape their communication in a different way, but they’re short on time so they don’t bother. They tell themselves that it’s fine, expectations for presenters are low anyway.”

Don’t be that presenter.

Instead, ask yourself, what does your audience need to get out of this presentation? What do I know—specifically—that will help improve their lives? Why are they going to be there in the first place?

The answer doesn’t have to be profound. In fact, it probably isn’t. If you’re teaching them how to use a new program or process that’s being implemented by the company, stick to that. They might not need the fascinating background behind its development, much less how brilliant you were to have invented it. 

Respect the fact that your audience has a limited attention span and memory. This isn’t a moral failing, it’s how the human mind works. If you subject them to a ten-minute introduction about how you attended an Ivy League school or vacationed in Mexico, you’ve already used up a significant chunk of their brainpower, which could have been better allocated elsewhere.

Also keep in mind that most people in your audience have a precise internal clock, which is subconsciously set to your scheduled time slot. If the agenda says that you’re going to speak for twenty minutes, their brains will start shutting down on the dot. That’s why smart speakers make sure that their presentations come in a little short.

Rule of Three

That suit would hold my attention, but not in a productive or efficient way
If this presenter had cut it down to three graphs rather than four, perhaps his Shutterstock audience would look a little more enthusiastic. 


In general, your audience is going to remember three key points from your talk. If you make twenty points, you have almost no control over what those three will be. [ProTip: It will probably be the first, last, and most surprising points…. rather than what they need to know.]

If you choose those three topics yourself, you control what they take away from your talk. So, do that instead. Bonus: This exercise will also help keep you from going over your allotted speaking time and making everyone hangry. 

But what if there’s more that they need to learn? Perhaps implementing this new travel program is a twenty-step process. That’s fine! Just don’t expect them to remember every step. That’s simply not how our brains work. Instead, make a handout that they can refer back to, or send them more detailed information via email.

Curse of Knowledge

The reason why you’ve been asked to speak is because you’re either a leader or an expert. Which means that you probably know more about the topic than most of the people the room, and we understand that it’s tempting to share it all.

Why I became a writer, explained in one stock photo

My husband just tunes out when try to explain this to him. Which is why I will never retire from teaching. 


When you begin writing your presentation, don’t ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this topic?” You’re the expert for a reason, you find everything interesting about this topic.

Your audience does not.

Instead, ask yourself, “What does my audience need to know?” That’s where you start.

Why say utilize when you could just say use?

To be fair, my fellow pedants, there is a time and place for “utilize.” When you use (ahem) a tool for something other than for what it was designed. I use my spatula to flip a pancake. I utilize my spatula to swat a fly.

You’re welcome, grammar police.

But what we are alluding to… um… talking about is the tendency of experts to use jargon, acronyms, and spelling bee words because that’s how they think. Or worse, because they want to impress upon the audience exactly how smart they are. 

Be smarter. Use words that everyone, even the fresh-out-of-college intern who is new to the field, will understand. In fact, think of him as your target audience. Someone who needs to understand your presentation the most, but who is the least familiar with industry buzzwords.

“When I began working with a travel company,” remembers Chainsaw’s Lead Trainer Alasdair Farrar, “They kept bringing up hotel attachment. I was wondering, did this refer to people who were attached to certain brands? Or who already belonged to a loyalty program?

Eventually, of course, he figured it out. When you book air travel, you reserve your hotel at the same time, so the bookings are attached and easier to keep track of. But that’s not the point.

If you want your audience engaged, don’t keep them sweating the small stuff. You want as much brainpower focused on you, and your message, as possible. Try to define even common industry terms as you give your talk, so no one will need to waste valuable time wondering.

Research Your Client’s Language

By the same token, every company has its own lexicon of terms. For example, our clients refer to the people who work for them by different labels: Employees, associates, and in some of the hospitals, hourlies.

Take the time to find out what words your audience is accustomed to, and use them. It’s all about making everything as easy as possible on your audience, so they can devote as much attention and energy to the information you’re trying to impart.

You love me... you really love me!
You can tell the difference. They’re not applauding because it’s over, as usual, but because they got a real return on the time they invested in your presentation. Isn’t that the best feeling?