11 November 2013

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)