Directing Audience Attention in Ballroom Presentations

One of the topics we highlight in our Presentation Skills training course is the importance that interacting with your slides plays in delivering a truly effective visual presentation. Indeed, early on in the session we focus attention on your ‘audience control device’ – actually your hand. Turning towards your slides and using your hand to point out specific elements within them is a sure-fire technique for ensuring your audiences’ attention is focused precisely where you want it to be – that is, on following your visuals as they build, adding depth of meaning and emphasis to your narration.

Forget what you may have heard about not turning your back on your audience and maintaining eye contact at all times.  Unless your slides are a mass of dull and boring text and bullet points that you want to discourage your audience from reading so they will listen to you instead – and we hope sincerely that they are not or, almost certainly, you will have lost them right from the start anyway – this is absolute bunkum!  This approach guarantees your audience will focus attention firmly on your face, ignoring the impressive visuals designed specifically to help you deliver an engaging and compelling presentation.

Great slide interaction

A superb example of this technique for directing audience attention can be seen daily on TV weather forecasts. The best weather presenters don’t stand rooted to the spot, staring forward, talking through whatever is being shown on the weather maps behind them. Instead they tend to be highly animated, constantly turning towards their maps and gesticulating  to make sure your eyes follow whatever aspect of the weather they are highlighting at any given time – here’s a cold front coming in from the north-west, there are rainstorms drifting across the country from east to west as the day progresses, etc., etc. I’m sure you get the picture!

Missing the blindingly obvious

There are well-proven reasons why it is critically important to actively direct your audiences’ attention during your presentations. If you have seen any of the ‘awareness test’ videos based on the work on inattentive blindness pioneered by Simons and Chabris in the ‘90s, you will know only too well of how easy it is to miss something that appears blindingly obvious in hindsight. If you haven’t seen these videos, I won’t spoil the fun, but have a dig around on YouTube if you are curious. Suffice to say that these prove the point beyond all doubt.

Don’t ever assume that your audience will see and understand every change in your presentation, subtle or not. Point out every change to them and explain what it means. That way, you will keep them engaged and make sure they understand fully whatever message it is you are attempting to convey. Trust me – this really works.

Typical environment

Bearing this in mind, the environment for our BrightSparks Presentation Skills training deliberately emulates that typically experienced when delivering a formal sales presentation – i.e. a boardroom or similar set up, with up to ten audience members sitting around a table with you presenting using a projector and screen or, more commonly these days, a large plasma or LCD TV-type monitor. In such an environment, it is easy to interact effectively with your presentation as described above.

A big screen

So, what happened when we were invited recently to deliver a version of our course at a client’s sales kick-off in the USA to an audience approaching 100 strong in a large ballroom with a screen that appeared to be the size of a football pitch? A slight exaggeration, I admit, but I’m sure you get the point. This screen was enormous. The bottom edge was almost at shoulder height and it extended for maybe 10 feet above that. So, it was clearly impossible for my colleague, Richard Goring, who was seeing the set up for the first time and due to deliver the training session the next day, to point directly with his hand at anything more than a foot or two up the screen. Given directed attention was one of the important techniques we were teaching, very quick thinking was required in order to find a solution.

A big hand

And so Richard disappeared to the local shopping mall, returning some time later with a broom handle….. and a large foam hand acquired from a local sports store. I’m sure you will have seen these hands at many a sporting event, emblazoned with the name of the local heroes – in this case the Houston Texans American Football team. The hand was quickly and easily attached to the broom handle and, despite raising a few chuckles on its introduction, it then served admirably as an extension to Richard’s normal ‘audience control device’ throughout the session. Indeed, he not only used a big hand to great effect, but got a big one too from the audience when the session closed! They loved it.

Richard Presenting At Intergraph Conference 01A Richard Presenting At Intergraph Conference 02A

Please feel free to steal this idea if ever you find yourself in a similar situation, and if a foam hand isn’t readily to hand (see what I did there?) at the time, I guess any long pointer should do the job!