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Two Ears, One Mouth. How Long Should You Talk?

Aug 17, 2007
Q The real question is - how long will your audience pay attention?

A In business, or business presentations, timing is everything, according to Christina Kaya, who heads Kayaco Seminars, specializing in communication skills development for business. Holding the attention of your listeners for the duration of a presentation is easy when you understand that there are predictable patterns in the way people pay attention. Speakers who know how to work with these attention patterns can hold the attention of an audience to gain commitment and prompt action.

How do you hold the attention of your audience? Studies in brain research indicate that as the length of a presentation increases, the time the audience spends in "down-time" increases. During a twenty-minute presentation, the audience is absorbing and retaining information for approximately 18 of those 20 minutes, or 90% of the total presentation time. A 40-minute presentation only commands full attention 75% of the time. During an 80-minute presentation, listeners are in "down-time" for 30 of those 80 minutes.

Twenty minutes is the optimum time frame for one-way delivery of information. Presentations that require a longer format should be designed with 20-minute modules. This involves planning a major change every 20 minutes, with a change in the use of technology, or audience involvement.

There are also "micro-cycles" of attention within these 20-minute time frames. People "tune in" and "tune out" on a regular basis. At any time during a presentation, the audience "tunes in" and actively takes in information, then "tunes out", or goes into "down time" to process the information. Studies have shown that these cycles are between 35 and 55 seconds of uptime, followed by two or three seconds of "down time". If you time your presentation to match these cycles you are guaranteed to hold attention from start to finish.

The opening of a business presentation is one of the most important "micro-cycles" to plan. As the saying goes, "you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression". How many times have you attended a presentation where the opening statements took too long? Opening statements should ideally take no longer than 55 seconds to deliver. When opening statements run longer than a minute, some of the information is being missed, because virtually everyone has spontaneously gone into "down time"!

So the next time you have to make a business presentation, get out your stopwatch and time your material. In business - and in business presentations, timing is everything!
About the Author
CMC Training offers professional development seminars and communications skills that will teach you how to stay current and move forward in your career.
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