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Brain Rule #4: Brains don’t pay attention to boring.

January 31, 2010

One of my favorite books is Dr. John Medina’s Brain Rules.  An exceptionally good volume that nearly anyone would benefit from and, I think, enjoy. It’s very readable, thoroughly researched and occasionally humorous. It’s structured as 12 chapters, each discussing one brain rule. Several of these are directly applicable to doing presentations.

Here’s one of them:

Brain Rule #4: Brains don’t pay attention to boring.

This one isn’t so much about boring, it’s what goes on when we try to pay attention to something. As the research he reports indicates, we can’t do it for very long. I’ve seen other numbers quoted, but he reports a 10-minute figure as the edge of the attention “cliff.” After that, our brains are going to drift and it doesn’t matter what the subject is or even whether we want to pay attention or not. So, no matter how great your presentation is, you are going to lose the audience after 10-minutes or so. The research he cites also shows that you can bring them back—reset the clock—and get another 10-minutes or so. To get them back you need to do something different, surprising or almost anything that changes the flow of input to the brain. Like what? Well, a few examples he uses are: take the slides down and tell a story, play a video, give a demonstration, or pass around a prop.

Basically, you just need something that will wake up the brains out there, “hey, I need to pay attention here, something significant just changed.” Medina writes that he now structures his course lectures that way with specific breakpoints included at about 10-minute intervals and I’ve found it works wonders in the kind of presentations I do as well.

Another thing he discusses is our brain’s inability to multitask, i.e., pay attention to two inputs to the brain at the same time. This is the physiological reason driving and talking on the phone are so dangerous. For presenters what this means is that you can either talk or let the audience read the slide, do NOT do both. If you have text on a slide, don’t attempt to talk while they read the slide and don’t ever read the slide to them—simultaneous verbal and reading input will require the brain to task switch back-and-forth between inputs. It requires finite time to do that switch (100’s of milliseconds) and nothing gets processed while that’s happening (hence the delayed reaction times in a driving situation). So, either eliminate the text slides (often good, not always possible) or keep the text if you must but shut up while they read. Oh, and if it’s there, they’re going to read the text on the slide whether you want them to or not, so if it’s not crucial, get rid of the text-heavy slides.

UPDATE:  fascinating tidbit on the multitasking topic is also found at the Heath Brothers’ blog here.

There’s much more, but that’s the essentials of Rule #4 applied to presentations. Remember:

  • After 10-minutes or so, the audience’s attention is going to drop radically.
  • If you use text slides, don’t read the slides to them, ever, and don’t talk while they read them.
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