The battle for audience attention (3): Why audiences fall asleep

Sleeping studentThis is the third of a three part series of posts, prompted by last week's news that proceedings of the Court of Appeal were being televised for the first time.

Earlier parts were (1) The battle for audience attention and (2) Why stay awake in conversation.

Why audiences fall asleep

Speeches and presentations are much longer than turns in a conversation
Compared with the talk we’re used to listening to in conversations, the most unusual thing about a speech or presentation is its sheer length. In essence, all forms of public speaking involve the production of exceptionally long turns at talk, in which one person is given the floor for far longer than anyone ever gets to speak during a conversation. Rather than having to pay attention to short conversational turns lasting an average of seven or eight seconds, members of an audience are faced with the daunting prospect of having to listen to one person speaking continuously for 10, 20 or 30 minutes – and often for even longer than that.

Audiences know they won’t have to speak for a while
This may seem a grim enough prospect in itself, but it’s only part of the attentiveness problem we face when sitting in an audience. What makes life really difficult is that our only job is to listen. We can therefore relax in the knowledge that we’re not going to have to speak for however long the speech or presentation lasts. The absence of any immediate threat of having to say something at a moment’s notice amounts to a massive reduction in the incentives to pay attention that work so efficiently in everyday conversation. This goes a long way towards explaining why we are so much more likely to fall asleep when in an audience than when participating in a conversation.

If audiences get confused, they stop listening
Another extremely important and taken-for-granted feature of conversation that also changes dramatically in speeches and presentations is the relative ease with which we’re able to deal with any difficulties we may have in understanding what someone just said. If, at some point in a conversation, we’re unclear about something, we can use our next turn to ask for clarification, and get an immediate solution to the problem. But, when sitting in an audience, most of us are much more inhibited. For one thing, it involves interrupting, and therefore runs the risk of offending the speaker. Not only that, but a request for clarification can all too easily sound like a public complaint about the speaker’s incompetence at explaining things clearly enough.

Our reluctance to intervene may also be fuelled by a fear of exposing our own ignorance in public – because, for all we know, everyone else in the audience may be finding it perfectly easy to follow the argument. So the safest and commonest option is not to ask for clarification. Instead, we start reflecting on what the speaker has been saying in a bid to disentangle what it was all about for ourselves. The trouble is that trying to make some kind of retrospective sense of what we’ve just heard takes priority over concentrating on whatever comes next. And if we miss some or all of that, we become even more muddled and confused, sometimes to a point where we simply give up on making any further effort to understand, listen or stay awake.

Presentations and speeches are not always designed so that audiences can follow them
Our reluctance to ask for clarification from a speaker is only one deviation from routine conversational practice that poses problems of understanding for audiences. Another is the way the subject matter is selected and managed. In conversation, there are no restrictions on the topics we can talk about, and everyone involved can play an active part in influencing the direction it takes. As a result, the subjects covered in conversations are constantly changing, and can suddenly take off in completely unexpected and unplanned directions.

Compared with the more or less infinite range of topics we can talk about in conversation, the subject matter of speeches and presentations is much narrower and more restricted. As members of an audience, we may not even be particularly interested in the topic to begin with. Worse still, and unlike in conversation where we can do something about our lack of interest by changing the subject, we have no control over how the subject of a presentation or speech will be developed. It’s the speaker who has sole responsibility both for selecting the material and organising it into an orderly sequence.

Nor do we have much idea about exactly what’s going to be included, or how the subject matter is going to be divided up – until or unless the speaker gives us advance notice of what’s to come, and the order in which the points will be covered. In other words, having a sense of sequence and structure plays a crucially important part in helping us to make sense of what we’re hearing. All too often, speakers either fail to do this or, having done it, make no further reference to how any particular item under discussion fits in with the overall structure announced at the start. And if we’re confused about where things have got to in relation to where they were supposed to be going, our ability to understand and keep on paying attention will go into a progressive decline.

The problems of understanding faced by audiences and the difficulty of doing something about them are therefore very different from the way they arise and are dealt with in conversation. This means that the speaker’s main challenge is to make sure that the subject matter is presented in a way that the audience can follow. If our problem as members of an audience is trying to pay attention to a continuous stream of talk many hundreds of times longer than anything we ever have to listen to in a conversation, the parallel problem for speakers is producing such an abnormally long turn.

To make matters worse, they are deprived of a very efficient means of checking on understanding that we use continuously during conversations. This is the way in which we routinely inspect other speakers’ responses to gauge whether or not our previous turn was understood in the way we intended. If it was, we can safely carry on; if it wasn’t, we can elaborate, revise or otherwise expand on the point we were trying to get across.

Ideally, of course, a speech or presentation should be designed so that anyone in the audience will be able to follow it. This is why the selection and structuring of the subjects to be covered is (or should be) at the heart of the preparation process, and why it is an important enough topic to have the whole of Chapter 9 in Lend Me Your Ears devoted to it.

The battle against boredom
The greatly reduced pressure on audiences to listen means that winning and holding their attention can never be taken for granted. It poses a far greater challenge than many speakers realise, and is a battle that has to be fought relentlessly for the entire duration of a speech or presentation....

(Continued in Lend Me Your Ears pp. 30-371)

The battle for audience attention (2): why stay awake in conversation?

Yesterday's televising of Supreme Court proceedings got me thinking about my attempts to use recordings to study courtroom language - and how conversation analysis had led my later works to focus on public speaking and presentation more  generally. 

This is a continuation of yesterday's excerpt from 'Lend Me Your Ears':

… becoming an effective public speaker depends on having as clear a picture as possible of the key differences between conversation on the one hand, and speeches and presentations on the other. The most important of all of these is the dramatic change in our motives for paying attention that occurs as soon as we stop conversing with other members of the audience, and settle down to listen to the speaker of the day. When I ask audiences if any of them ever find it difficult to stay awake during speeches, presentations, lectures or sermons, a typical result is that 100 per cent of them put up their hands. When asked how many have trouble staying awake listening to what someone is saying during conversations, the typical result is zero per cent.

The first statistic is proof that everyone knows that speeches and presentations have a tremendous capacity for boring audiences out of their minds, and that holding the attention of an audience is a major challenge for speakers. The second statistic points to something that people know when they think about it, but probably never give much thought to most of the time: most of us have little or no trouble in staying awake while engaged in conversation with a small number of others. This is because there are powerful incentives to pay attention built into the way conversation works. And these incentives are underpinned by implicit
rules that are not written down and formally taught, but are understood by everyone capable of having a conversation.

One at a time
The most obvious feature of conversation is that we take it in turns to talk: one speaker says something and, when that one’s turn comes to an end, a next speaker starts, and so on until the end of the conversation:

Speaker A: ——————|
Speaker B:                       |——————|
Speaker C:                                             |———————|

If someone else suddenly starts speaking when you are still in the middle of your turn, it’s natural to feel annoyed. In fact, you’re likely to regard anyone who trespasses on your space as ‘rude’ or ‘impolite’. You are not only within your rights to complain, but are equipped with the necessary vocabulary for referring to the
misdemeanour: the words ‘interrupt’ and ‘interruption’. When you complain of being ‘interrupted’, you are actually drawing attention to the fact that a basic, though implicit, rule of conversation has been broken: only one speaker should speak at a time, and others in the conversation should wait until the end of any current turn before starting the next one.

Occasional failures to observe this rule may be tolerated, but anyone who makes a regular habit of starting to speak in the middle of other people’s turns soon finds that there’s a heavy price to pay. Your reputation will go into a nosedive. At best, you’ll be regarded as impolite or inconsiderate; at worst as a pushy, domineering
control freak who’d rather ‘hog the conversation’ than listen to what anyone else has to say. If you’d rather not be seen like this, you have a strong incentive to pay attention at least closely enough to know when the previous speaker has finished, and when you can launch into a turn of your own without being accused of interrupting.

Coming in on cue
The incentive to listen during conversations isn’t just a matter of paying close enough attention to notice when a speaker gets to the end of a turn, as there is another rule about when you can start the next turn. Fail to get this right, and people will have another reason for wondering about your manners and motives. You only
have to think of how you react if, after greeting someone with the turn ‘Good morning’, the other person doesn’t reply at all.

Charitable explanations are that they must be half asleep, or perhaps a little deaf. But you’re much more likely to start worrying about why they aren’t speaking to you, what you’ve done to offend them or what’s gone wrong with the relationship. So the only way to stop other people from thinking such negative thoughts about you is to make sure that you start speaking before the silence has lasted long enough to be deemed ‘awkward’ or ‘embarrassing’.

This raises the question of just how long you’ve got before the silence starts to make things difficult? The answer is that you can’t afford to let the silence last for more than a split second. Research into conversation shows that silences of less than half a second are not only long enough to be noticed, but are enough to start us thinking that some kind of trouble is on its way. Studies of how people respond to invitations, for example, have found that an immediate reply usually means that the speaker is about to accept, whereas a delay of even a fraction of a second means that a refusal is on its way. The same is true of the way people reply to offers of various kinds: positive replies start straight away, and negative ones are delayed. So the safest way of preventing people from getting the wrong impression is to pay close enough attention to be able to start speaking as soon as possible, and certainly before the silence starts to get embarrassing.

Showing you were listening
Another extremely important reason for listening in conversation is that you have to be continually at the ready to say something that relates directly to what was said in the previous turn. Even a small lapse in concentration can cause you to say something that leads the previous speaker to conclude that you had not been paying attention, are not in the least bit interested in what they were saying, or that you are just plain rude. It often prompts accusations, arguments and conflict – so much so that it may well be at the heart of large numbers of domestic rows. If these could be traced back to their original source, many of them would
surely be found to have started just at that moment in a conversation when one speaker says something – or perhaps says nothing – that gives their spouse or partner the impression that he or she had not been listening.

The threat of having to say something
Conversational success and failure obviously depend on our continually maintaining a very high level of attentiveness to what others are saying. We have to keep listening closely enough not to interrupt, closely enough to come in on time and closely enough to be ready to say something that relates to the previous turn. In short, the ever-present threat that we might have to speak next amounts to an extremely powerful incentive for us to stay alert and wide-awake during a conversation. It also points to a fundamental reason why audiences will be in a very much lower state of attentiveness when listening to a speech or presentation.

(To be continued with 'Why audiences fall asleep')