How a speaker tricks an audience into paying attention

As a speaker, when I walk off stage, I enjoy hearing audience members talk about what stuck out for them or what lessons they took away. Last week I spoke to the salesforce at a franchise business and afterwards a gentleman named Dan greeted me with a hearty handshake and excitedly told me that he was awake the entire time!

“With my attention span, I can’t listen to any speaker for more than ten minutes in a row. You’re the first speaker I’ve listened to for the entire hour and I paid attention the entire time.”

Was it luck that Dan was so engaged? Or was it a good cup of coffee? And was the numberten a random number or was Dan manipulated and controlled against his will to say exactly ten minutes?


You better believe it.

You see, I learned about the “ten-minute rule” in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and I’ve been dutifully following it as a performer and public speaker to craft each of my presentations.

I use the ten-minute rule to keep my audiences engaged. If you’re ever asked to give a lengthy presentation, you can use this rule to make sure your audience stays awake and pays attention.

Let’s admit that every audience member has a wandering imagination and yearns for exciting distractions that buzz, beep or vibrate. Each of us can only pay attention to something monotonous for a short amount of time. How long? Coincidentally, about ten minutes.

After that we need some change of stimulus. Something that captures a different part of our brain, something that gets us to shift our minds, our bodies, our thoughts. We need something that surprises us, but doesn’t distract us. Something that engages, but doesn’t overwhelm. Something that brings clarity, not clutter.

To make sure audiences don’t fall asleep, Medina suggests teachers and speakers break up lengthy presentations into ten minute modules and separate them with “hooks” that are relevant and emotional. These hooks can take the form of anecdotes, case studies, digital media, or in my presentations: magic.

I use magic in my presentations in two ways: sporadically and purposefully. My speech is not a magic show. Any magic I perform is there for a particular reason. Performing magic throughout my keynote presentations fits the rules that Medina describes for useful hooks perfectly. The magic is both relevant to the content and emotionally stimulating.



And it happens at the right time to keep the audience awake. So the ten-minute rule is the reason that Dan came up to me to tell me he stayed awake the entire time. This is why he was able to watch me for an hour, because what he experienced without knowing it were six separate 10-minute modules, with mesmerizing moments in-between them to stir his imagination and keep his attention flowing.

That’s my secret. And that’s how any speaker can trick an audience into paying attention.

If you’re hiring a public speaker for your conference, consider this a factor when making your selection. How engaging are they and how well do they keep their audience’s attention for the entire length of the program?

And if it’s your turn to give a presentation, I encourage you to follow the ten-minute rule. This concept (pg 89-93) is just one of the many gems in Medina’s book, and I highly recommend it.