The Science of Audience Engagement

the science of audience engagement

Flickr – Martin Thomas, Applause

The attention span of the average American is short – and getting shorter.

Research suggests that the average adult attention span is now only 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes just a decade ago.

And on the web? It is 6 seconds, one second shorter than that of a goldfish. Blame the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter…point fingers wherever you want, the reality is the same. We just don’t focus like we used to.

For a public speaker, short attention spans present a unique problem. How do you get your audience to put down their phones and listen to you? How do you keep them engaged and ensure they’ll remember your message long after the speech is over? The nemesis of meaningful audience engagement is boredom, so, in order to capture and hold the attention of your listeners, you have to keep your presentation interesting – you have to add variety.

To gain a deeper understanding for how the best speakers add variety to their presentations, we turned to our communication analytics database. We first gathered the 25 most engaging speakers from the more than 100,000 communicators in our database. The top 25 list includes speakers such as Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan, Tony Robbins, and several TED speakers. We then analyzed their strengths to bring you the following science-backed tips to keep your audience awake, focused and delighted:

  1. Storytelling – Incorporate a variety of supporting materials into your speech.
    • The top 25 speakers in our database use 1.1x more stories and 1.3x more statistics than the average speaker in our database.
    • Quotations, interesting facts, and anecdotes add color to your speech and these “sound bites” trigger increased audience listening.
  2. Vocal Variety – variations in vocal pitch, rate of speech, vocal intensity, and tone quality increases audience attention span and improves listener comprehension
    • In the 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, actor Ben Stein plays a monotone-droning economics teacher whose students can’t stay awake during his lectures. Sadly, many real-life public speakers drone their audiences to sleep with Ben Stein-esque vocal delivery.
    • It was therefore not surprising that, when measured, 80% of the top 25 most engaging speakers found in our database also had the most dynamic voices.
  3. Visual aids – Audiences are more likely to stay focused and comprehend new information if it is presented in a variety of ways as opposed to just a set of bullet points
    • Properly used visual aids can add yet another element of variety to your presentation. In fact, studies suggest that three days after an event, people retain 10% of what they heard from an oral presentation, 35% from a visual presentation, and 65% from a visual and oral presentation.
    • However, if you’re going to use visual aids, make sure you use them correctly – studies show that irrelevant visual aids can have negative effects on learning.
    • See our previous post, Neuroscience and Visual Aid Effectiveness for more information.

    While there were certainly commonalities among the 25 most engaging speakers in our database, it’s important to note that each speaker also uses his or her own style. In fact, 80% of the top 25 engaging speakers also scored in the top quartile in terms of perceived authenticity.