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News: Associations News

Attention deficit part 2: how speakers can capture and hold their audience’s attention

10 October 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Katie Spackman
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Welcome back. In the first piece of this two-part article I introduced the idea that the attention of both the audience and the speaker are under attack. Even when the opportunity for face to face connection arises, both parties can become distracted. And this can damage the value of speaking engagements for all concerned. I then went on to propose that the speaker can regain the audience’s attention but only when they gain control of their own. And that are two things they could attend to that would achieve this.

The first is time. And the second is content. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to attend to both.

It takes more time to prepare than you think it will. 
A successful speaking engagement is not just about creating your content. Important though it is, your content is less than half the story of a great performance. Effective speaking is about how you deliver that content. If it was just about content, you could email the delegates your script and that would be that. 

Before you start preparing, take control by making a plan. Work backwards from when you are due to speak, planning first when you want your words completed and then your slides. Include time to rehearse, repeatedly, aloud. I start rehearsing at least a week before the actual day of the speaking engagement, ideally two-weeks. 

Here’s what happens when you make time to rehearse: 
It will give you time to notice what works and what doesn’t. You’ll notice what the words you’ve written sound like to you. And how the content flows as you speak it. You’ll be able to hear yourself and picture your audience. You can start to understand what you would think if you were listening to you. 

After a number of run-throughs, you’ll find that you start to become very familiar with your words, and as if by magic, you start to commit them to memory. As you rehearse you’ll start to feel less nervous, which will reduce your nerves and build your confidence when you get to the occasion. You’ll have practiced what you’re going to say and refined it. And you can focus more on your audience, be more able to slow down, take your time and enjoy the experience.

You have less time to speak than you think you have. 
You may think you know how long you have to speak, but that time is not just for you to speak. Bear in mind that it also includes your pauses between words, meaning you immediately have less time than you think you have. You may also want to pause around your key ideas for your audience to fully absorb them. Again, this is included in your allowance and not extra time. This is why many speakers run over time and end up rushing and apologising at the end.

How to attend to this? I make a long hand script, and rehearse with it word for word. And I time myself. Doing this means I can see if I’m running over and if I am, I can cut or re-word something. It also helps me to slow down, by saying less or finding a different way to say it. Doing this will enable you to feel more confident. By knowing that what you are going to say will fit comfortably into the time allocated, you’ll be more in control when it comes to speaking on the day.  

What you have to say needs to be treated before you can speak it. 
Consider your initial content as your raw material. Before you can share it it needs to be refined, in order to turn it into something speakable. Start with your idea. This is likely to have been generated by your own experience. Whatever your idea, it needs to be mixed with two other sorts of information before it can become what you will say. The first is information around your audience. And the second is information around you. 

For example, in relation to your audience, you can ask of your raw material: 
What difference will this information make to my audience? 
And in relation to you, you can ask: 
Why does this raw material matter to me? 

Then you can go back to your raw material and start to work on it. You may find that the key point in your idea was originally at the end and by doing this exploration you have brought it front and centre. Exploring your thoughts in response to these questions will start to turn your raw material into something worth speaking about. 
When you pay attention to the time you spend preparing your content and rehearsing, you invest in gaining your audience’s attention when it comes to the occasion itself. It’s no wonder speakers get nervous. They hold such a precious opportunity in this age of moment to moment communication. By paying attention to time and content, you will be attending more effectively to your own performance as a speaker and you’ll be earning your audience’s attention as a result. 

For a reading list and resources to support you to deliver well at your next speaking engagement, take a look here:

John Scarrott is a Trainer and Coach working with Association professionals on their approach to public speaking, presentations, selling and networking. A former Membership Director, he is an international speaker and has spoken in the UK, Europe, India and Australia. He is an ICF Associate Certified Coach (ACC), one of only 25,000 credentialed coaches worldwide. He is the retained coach and trainer in Public Speaking for the AoAE and the Presentation Skills trainer for the Institute of Direct Marketing.  You can find out more about him at

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