How to Grab and Keep an Audience’s Attention

Futurist Scott Steinberg shares creative strategies for engaging and educating highly distracted people.

Photograph by Nicola for Adobe Stock
Photograph by Nicola for Adobe Stock

Most of us are time-pressed and struggling to absorb new information, address difficult challenges, and make swift and smart decisions. We need our education to be quick, concise and captivating, says Scott Steinberg, CEO of FutureProof Strategies, a consulting firm that helps business leaders predict and plan for the future.

Scott Steinberg CEO of FutureProof Strategies
Scott Steinberg, CEO of FutureProof Strategies

We need to shake up meeting content and presentation formats to engage people fully, truly educate them and even delight our audiences, says Steinberg, who is also a professional speaker. Following is his advice for meeting planners and presenters, excerpted from the Eventful podcast A Futurist’s Guide to Audience Engagement.

How can presenters engage a highly distracted audience?

Your job, your challenge, is to jolt people out of their comfort zones to grab their attention instantly and hold it. Use fun terms that everybody can understand. Sometimes meeting content can seem very abstract. We need to make things more dynamic and engaging, distilling important points down to their essence, and communicating them as simply and succinctly as possible.

Can shorter sessions deliver the same amount of education?

Definitely. If you think about it, you might have a speaker on stage for 60 or 90 minutes. But really, they're trying to impart one to three key ideas or action steps. Those ideas often take as little as 30 seconds to take root.

What are some ways to encourage audience interaction?

People learn best by doing — they need to be hands-on and engaging in learning sessions. Having fun games, activities and icebreakers can really help you mix things up. It’s also good to shrink the size of some of the sessions and give people more opportunities to interact with one another.

Some people resist getting involved. How do you get them to participate?

The types of activities I do are designed to surprise and delight. For example, I'd have groups of 3 or 4 people per table and tell them, “You're in charge of a major corporation, and you're going to design a plan for how this business is going to recruit people, knowing that we have a labor shortage. Oh, and by the way, every five minutes, I'm going to ask somebody to choose a card with a random disruption on it to completely shake up your game plan.” The idea is to really challenge people and get them out of their comfort zone.

How can you keep a virtual audience’s attention during hybrid or digital events?

You’ve got to grab their attention out of the gate, and you’ve got to keep up that pacing throughout the presentation. Have surprises that will keep them on their toes or ask people online to share their opinions. For every two slides of hard, actionable content, I like to have a joke or a relatable story in there to keep people engaged.

Is it OK to make up a “real-life” scenario to illustrate a point?

Oh, absolutely. Stories are what people remember; they’re a form of mental shorthand. Some best-selling business books are basically fables and parables that are designed to teach a principle.

How do you impart these concepts to a speaker?

You explain to them that audiences are increasingly tuning out, and the best way to get them to tune in is to speak with them, not at them, and to attack things from a different angle. If you’ve got 15 minutes for a presentation, you can still sprinkle in fun videos or silly little pictures of cute cats doing things — something designed to get their brains off autopilot.

Is it OK to use something unrelated to the topic, like cat pictures?

I have absolutely used pictures of “LOL cats” in speeches. I can neither confirm nor deny if I use photos of my kid having a temper tantrum — anything that really gets people to pay attention. We're distracted. But when you see something that you can't look away from, it draws you back.

How can meeting agendas be changed to foster more engagement?

Meetings have a set format, and not a lot of people want to experiment at a time like this, when we're just getting back to seminormal. But there’s room to play around. If I've got a spare hour, instead of scheduling a breakout session, what if I created some sort of speed-consulting or speed-dating style format? You can find ways to help audiences connect and absorb information that doesn't fall into a predefined 30 minutes or 45 minutes.

How does your Pop Future program help people change their thinking and presentation styles?

Pop Future is a training and education program, and a method of communications that challenges us to take typically dry, boring or complex business topics and present them in a faster and fun format that's more engaging and easier to understand. It uses art forms of creative expression, maybe even silly gags, to take very serious topics and accelerate the learning process to help people understand in minutes what's currently taking 60 minutes, 90 minutes, or even a full day of training.

Does it take more effort to prepare that kind of content?

No, actually, and that's the irony, right? We're still using 30-year-old communications methods to present ideas. In fact, you can go online and find predesigned video templates and make a 60-second clip explaining a concept. Or you can use online tools like Canva to create screenshots and infographics. We're  talking about bringing things down to their essence and finding clever ways to present them. That is only as challenging as creativity is for you.