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Jonathan Marshall


Head of Learning, Diplomatic Academy

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Nine ways to grab and keep your learners’ attention


Holding learners’ attention is a bit like performing a magic trick. You need to get them to buy into the illusion before doing your big reveal. Here are some techniques to help capture – and keep – your learners’ attention.

You may have read the scary headlines about the fact that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of the average goldfish. This is, of course, complete rubbish.

We’re also continually told that millennials can barely focus long enough to tie their own shoelaces – probably due to being raised on social media.

If it’s true that we can only focus for eight seconds, how can we sit through three or four hours of a Lord of the Rings film (the trilogy has grossed $3 billion dollars – so somebody has) and how can we explain the popularity of box sets on Netflix?

On the other hand, we are way too complacent about our training or L&D formats. Many ‘classic’ learning formats tend to be ridiculously long and passive, e.g. the long lecture, the panel discussion, the keynote speech, the detailed PowerPoint presentation, and the e-learning unit.

I’ve blogged elsewhere on the science of why we struggle to stay focused and also about why, as the organisers of learning, we fail to notice that it’s all going wrong.

Here’s the summary: our brains are wired to scan our environment continuously, like radar, and to demand decisions on what they find. The continual effort to block out all these ‘irrelevant’ blips and messages is tiring and we lose focus. Things like being hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, stressed or sleepy really don’t help either.

Presenters don’t notice because the audience’s eyes are still open and, well, we enjoy presenting anyway, don’t we?

What is our actual attention span?

How long before we tune out? We don’t really know. If you have an audience, you will lose some of them within minutes, but a few might stay with you for a whole hour. Many will drift away mentally, and come back again.

EdEx conducted a solid piece of research that suggests that engagement with online video drops sharply after six minutes.

Molecular biologist John Medina suggests in Brain Rules that you should work in ten-minute chunks. TED talks aim for 18 minutes.

If students have to engage actively with a subject, they will do better. When you’re forced to do something, you’re being forced to pay attention.

Jerry Seinfeld once said: “There is no such thing as an attention span. There is only the quality of what you are viewing.” But if you look at Seinfeld, each episode is 22 minutes, so he wasn’t taking any chances either, even with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the cast.

With blithe confidence, many training and L&D formats assume unbroken attention from a seated (slumped) position for 40, 50 or 60 minutes – with a few minutes for Q&A at the end.

Think in zones 

Instead of precise numbers of minutes, it may be more helpful to think about zones. If people are sitting passively and not very interested, they are likely to drop into the hopelessly distracted zone.

If they’re interested in what’s happening – perhaps because you’re using colourful techniques, telling stories, mixing it up, being a bit controversial – they won’t be distracted, at least not yet.

If they’re still passive, i.e. sitting rather than doing, or listening rather than talking, you won’t have them forever. This is the fragile attention zone.

Ideally you want people to be in the strong attention zone. This is where our nine techniques to buy attention come in.

The magic nine of buying attention

Some of this is about the design of your materials.

1. Build the learning around stories

The late, great Terry Pratchett invented the concept of ‘narrativium’. His point was that stories are so powerful, memorable and fundamental that they really deserve a place on the periodic table.

2. Use colourful techniques

The power of vivid imagery is something that was pointed out 2,000 years ago in a classic text on rhetoric (the Rhetorica ad Herennium) and, according to Josh Foer, is still being used by memory experts today. What grabs people will also help with their longer-term learning.

3. Exploit (gently) the power of emotion

John Medina explains that emotion leaves chemical ‘post-it’ notes on thoughts, making them easier to retrieve. Introducing feelings helps people to engage in a dry subject (even if it isn’t dry to you, the presenter).

Get them working

The next three techniques are about how people spend their time. We shouldn’t be passive, and we shouldn’t get stuck on the same thing for lengthy periods of time.

4. Make it active

Professor Carl Wieman has written extensively about the hard evidence for taking an active approach to lectures and university teaching. Put simply, if students have to engage actively with a subject, they will do better. When you’re forced to do something, you’re being forced to pay attention.

5. Make it varied

A change is as good as a rest and is likely to reset attention. Varied practice is also one of the techniques that have been shown to aid learning, along with retrieval testing – the research is summarised in Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel.

6. Break it into chunks

People need time to reflect and recharge.

Learn from Jeremy Kyle

Look at the design of The Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s built around stories - it has gripping images and bucket loads of emotion. It has a variety of stories and is broken into short segments. Even if you think it’s trashy and manipulative, you can see the techniques that have made it incredibly successful. The only thing it lacks is activity, unless you’re jumping up from the sofa to shout at the screen, which you might well be.

For every set of learning materials, ask the simple question: is there a real person telling a story? How could we add ‘narrativium’?

The same combination works for any soap opera you want to mention. In fact Mexican telenovelas have given rise to an entire methodology of promoting social change – the Sabido Method – because of the power of this combination of techniques to grab attention, where more traditional educational methods would fail.

Please make this about me

The last three techniques are about the learner.

7. Make it relevant

Allow people to bring their own work challenges, their own examples. Make it about them and about next week’s work, not about something abstract. In his work on ‘andragogy’, Malcolm Knowles identified this as key difference for adult learners.

8. Allow the learner to move from easy to difficult

People need scaffolding, and support to move from one phase to the next. Learning is built on the last piece of learning. Too easy or too hard, and you will lose people’s attention.

9. Reward

From economics to psychology to gamification, there is plenty of research about the power of incentives. You can’t award a qualification at the end of a single lecture, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt in L&D, it’s that people like quizzes – so you can always go for the competitive element.

What can we do about it?

That was a quick canter through nine ways in which we can grab and keep attention. Here are some further practical ideas.

Stories: run a ‘story audit’ of all your learning materials – the programmes, the presentations, the videos, the handouts. For every set of learning materials, ask the simple question: is there a real person telling a story? How could we add ‘narrativium’?

Activity: break up any large chunks. Add exercises, discussions, quizzes to force people into activity.

Relevance: design sessions where people share their individual challenges. Look at building an ‘action learning’ approach into your design. Ask yourself: as a learner, could I adapt this to me, now? Do I have options? Is there space for me to bring my own issues and work on them?

Looking for more tips? Read Three ways to make your presentations more impactful

Author Profile Picture
Jonathan Marshall

Head of Learning, Diplomatic Academy

Read more from Jonathan Marshall

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