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Remember These Tips to Maintain Your Audience’s Attention

By Jacquelyn Adams

Storytime: I have a friend who is into model airplanes. While sitting in the car, I thought it would be nice to ask what goes into making a model airplane. I was expecting a list of just a few high-level bullet points. His eyes danced with excitement as he said, “I am so happy you asked. We’re about to stop in a couple of minutes, so I don’t have time to tell you now, but once we get back in the car, I can tell you all about it.” Forty-five minutes of explanation later, I regretted asking such an open-ended question. In my head, I heard the line from A Few Good Men, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” But my response in this situation was more like, “This is too much of the truth! I only wanted a SparkNotes version of the truth!”

This trait is commonly found among us engineers and those with engineering-type personalities. We see it in meetings or at dinner parties — some well-intentioned soul asks a simple question and then is held hostage. So if we want to break from this stereotype, what do we do? The answer is to cultivate genuine curiosity.

Choose to Change

Let’s be honest; it may be not easy to adjust this aspect of ourselves for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of us enjoy talking about ourselves, our work and our passions. Therefore, we may not see a problem when we dominate a conversation. Left to our own devices, we’d rather stay on auto-pilot and not worry about how others react to what we’re saying. Also, this may be a bad habit we’ve nursed for years. And it may not feel like it’s worth the extra effort and energy that it takes in conversations to be aware not only of our message, but how it’s being received. It requires a specific type of presence and self-awareness, and becoming more attuned to your audience can be exhausting and overwhelming.

But that is not energy wasted. Being more present and attuned adds a new level of depth to the conversation and builds stronger relationships.

Lean Into Soundbites

The first step to adjusting our behavior is to shelve our dissertations. Instead of flooding our audience with all possible information, break it down into simple, digestible pieces. This sparks curiosity. It is better to give someone small bits that make them want to look into it more later than a long speech that makes them cringe any time model planes are mentioned in the future. Many feel that anything less than 100% truth is a deceit, but really it is simply knowing what your audience wants and can handle. Talking to a kindergarten about how a plane functions is very different than the same conversation with someone in flight school. In every conversation, we can use bite-sized truths as we attempt to discern the knowledge and interest level in a given topic.

Read the Cues

With each soundbite, we should be paying attention to our audience’s response, whether it’s a single person, board room, or an auditorium. This will give us insights as to whether we are sparking curiosity or holding hostages. If people are leaning in, engaging, and if possible asking questions, then it is a good sign. However if we are receiving an unenthusiastic, “Hmmmm…” or “That’s interesting” or eyes are darting around searching for rescue, then we have hostages.


Engaging an audience is not a skill we can manifest overnight. We need to familiarize ourselves with breaking information down into bite-size truths. Neil deGrasse Tyson did this admirably when he talked about the shape of the world. We could simply say it’s a sphere, however, it’s not a perfect sphere. Then we could go on to say that since’s wider than it is tall, it’s an oblate sphere. Additionally, since it is slightly wider below the equator than it is above it, it is a pear-shaped, oblated sphere. And if they are still with you, you can toss in a fun fact. In this case, even though Mount Everest is the highest point above sea level, because the earth is a pear shaped, oblate sphere, the furthest point from the Earth’s core is Mount Chimborazo. And while this is a fun example, it takes practice to create this outline of information. It takes practice to properly read our audience’s cues. However, each time we do so, we get better at sparking curiosity.

So after being fire hosed with information, will I ever ask another question about model airplanes? Since I care about my buddy and his passions, I will probably will, but not anytime in the immediate future. Regardless, it was a good reminder to break things down into interesting, bite-sized pieces. If we want people to learn and care about a topic, it can be tempting to share all we know, but the path of prudence is to always leave them wanting a little more.


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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