Keeping Your Audience Focused: The 10-minute rule

Person holding watch in his hands

Think back to the last medical lecture you attended; how much information did you retain after that talk? I’m willing to bet that you probably remembered who the speaker was, maybe you remembered the title of the talk, and perhaps you retained a sporadic fact here and there. But why is it that audiences can’t remember more information from a lecture that was just attended? Are we (the audience) doing something incorrectly? Are we not sophisticated learners? Clearly, the answer is no. The reason that we do not retain more information during a lecture is because many speakers do what they’ve always been taught to do…stuff as much information as possible into their allotted time. This is not a successful strategy for maintaining the audience’s attention, but it is a sure fire way to have your audience lose focus and start checking their email or Twitter feed. If you are a presenter you must understand how ineffective the traditional medical lecture is and learn how to present your information in a more consumable and engaging way.

Studies have shown that during a lecture most people cannot stay focused on a specific concept for more than 10 minutes at a time….that’s right, 10 minutes. I’ll say it one more time, you have the audience’s attention for no more than 10 minutes before their focus shifts away from you. Modern conference organizers understand this principle and have reduced the duration of “traditional” talks from 60 minutes to 30 minutes in the hopes of keeping audiences focused. Some organizers, like the Essentials of EM conference have even reduced the length of their lectures 5 to 10 minutes!

So don’t risk your next talk becoming a boring stream of information, let’s learn how the 10-minute rule can transform your talk into an engaging performance that will keep your audiences focused on you. The next time you prepare a lecture, try this:

Step 1: Avoid giving long-talks. If you’re given the choice of speaking for a longer or shorter time slot, alway chose the shorter. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially if you love lecturing, but you could be doing yourself a disservice. By talking for a longer period of time you have to work significantly harder to keep people engaged because it’s just a matter of time before people will naturally get distracted and loose their focus. Shorter talks allow you to utilize the 10-minute rule to your advantage by quickly engaging your audience, teaching them a few points, and then summarizing….all before they’ve had the chance to get distracted. You will more than likely leave the stage with a more positive impact on your audience than the person who drones on for 60 minutes. Now, not every lecture can be 10 minutes long, so if your lecture is longer than that you’ll have to move on to step 2.

Step 2: Divide and Conquer. If you are allotted 30 minutes for your talk, I recommend dividing the talk into 2-3 smaller parts, each 5-6 minutes long. (yes, when you do the math the time doesn’t fully add up to 30 minutes, but don’t forget that you still need time for the general intro, conclusion and questions). Each of the 5-6 minute blocks now becomes a mini-lecture; each will stand on their own, having only one central theme or point. Once you add in the intro for a mini-lecture and a summary, you’ll be close to the 10 minute mark. These mini-lectures can now be joined together to create your full talk.

Here’s how I set up these mini-lectures: I start off with a story or a clinical vignette to give the upcoming learning point a certain depth or emotion (this has also been shown to help audiences stay engaged). I’ll follow that story with an explanation of what I’m about to teach, then I’ll teach it, and then I’ll review what I’ve taught the audience.

Step 3: Enforcing a mental break. You’ve just given your mini-lecture and the audience has received new information; it’s time to let them process it and reset for the next upcoming mini-lecture. In other words, it’s time for a mental break. The mental break can simply be a 10 second pause followed by turning things over to the audience and allowing them to comment, ask questions, or just let them “reset”. It can also be another story or anecdote relating to the topic at hand. During the mental break, I’ll often have a blank slide in the slide-deck or I’ll press “B” (for “blank”) on the keyboard to take the focus off the screen and give it back to me. After the mental break is over it’s time to start giving the next mini-lecture and the cycle repeats again and again.

Step 4: Wait a minute…can I teach an entire topic using this method? No. If you use the method I just described, you will not be able to teach the entire topic of acute coronary syndrome. But you’re role as a speaker is not to teach the entire topic in 30, or even 60 minutes. That is an impossible task and that is why you’ll use your “handout” (to be covered in another post). The reality is that no one would of learned anything from you had you had tried to stuff everything known about ACS into a 30 minute talk. They would have been bored and might consider never attending one of your lectures again. But by focusing on 2-3 high-yield facts during your talk, your audience can maintain their focus on you and they will walk away actually retaining a few pearls that you gave them. The choice is yours, you can either have your audience leave your enjoyable and engaging talk remembering two to three important facts or you can have them playing on their phones, half-listening to you, and never attending one of your lectures ever again.

Conclusion: Your goal as a speaker is to hold the audience’s attention and have them leave with some new information…it is not to cram every bit of detail into your allotted time. Limit the information you give to no more than 10 minutes at a time and always give your audience a mental break in between.

Want to become a better presenter? Then signup of the Keynotable Workshop December 1 & 2. Click here for the website and get more information or watch the commercial here.