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3 ways to grab listener attention in a presentation, according to science

Tap into this element of memory to help your audience really hear your insights.

[Source photo: Campaign Creators/Unplash]

Begin your reading of this article by considering this sequence of numbers.

Which is the odd one out?

  • 14
  • 40
  • 68
  • 96

As you weigh your choices, your brain’s doing a couple of things. It’s reading each number, viewing the list of options, performing calculations, and keeping the result in mind, all while performing more calculations until it solves the problem. This temporary storage of information necessary to complete a cognitive task is a general definition of working memory—and it’s deeply important in business presentations.

How so? If you think about the mental calculations required to reach the right answer in the above exercise (as you probably discovered, it’s B), they’re no different than what you’re asking audience members to do: view a set of items and keep those items in mind long enough to reach a conclusion. Some people equate working memory with short-term memory, but there’s a subtle difference. Short-term memory involves storing information without manipulating it. Working memory implies you’re doing something with the information in the moment. If someone gives you a list of 10 U.S. presidents and asks you to memorize the names and recite them, that’s short-term storage. If they ask you to recite those names in alphabetical order, however, that’s working memory.

Similarly, when you’re presenting information to your audience members, you’re not simply asking them to remember what you shared. You’re also asking them to keep your main idea in mind, understand it, picture it in the context of their business, attend to specific items, plan for the future, and more. All these tasks require working memory. So how can you take advantage of working memory in a meaningful, effective way during your next presentation? Here are three ideas backed by cognitive science:


If too many items in your presentation are similar, you’ll introduce interference—a working memory killer. Imagine slides in a presentation with pictures on the left and text on the right, and the format appears in most slides. After a while, the information blends together.

Interference can be proactive (meaning items from previous presentations were too similar to yours) or retroactive (meaning items the audience encounters after meeting with you are too similar). Retroactive interference is important because people typically associate forgetting with the passage of time, but forgetting is also impacted by events that happen after you meet with someone.

How can you counteract interference? Clarify what must be remembered over the long term and help people’s working memory keep that information alive by making it distinct. Imagine you have a deck with a set of three ideas people must remember displayed in three columns in a slide. Reserve that three-column design only for those takeaways. Then, repeat this distinct information multiple times to refresh people’s working memory. New items override old items in working memory approximately every 30 seconds. With that, consider including a lot of repetition to keep working memory strong.


Let’s say an important message you want others to remember has 12 components. Instead of trying to get your audience to remember 12 independent concepts, group them into three or four sections. That gives listeners a higher chance of remembering some items with precision.

This is useful because working memory is a form of cognitive workload; when you task people too much, they’ll look elsewhere for something easier to process. So present your content in a way that allows for chunking, which caters to working memory.

You can “chunk up” (create generic groups) or “chunk down” (get specific). If you’re giving a presentation on your company’s data analytics solution, you might create three generic groups, saying, “Our solution includes visual analytics, advanced analytics, and streaming analytics.” To be more specific, you might say, “Our solution includes dashboards, machine learning, and real-time analytics.” Deciding to chunk up or down depends on whether it’s important for your audience to see the bigger picture or discover deeper structures.


The scientific community is currently considering this formula for working memory: attention + long-term memory = working memory. This equation assumes that if you’re holding something in your mind to solve a cognitive task, you must pay attention to it and tap into your long-term memory.

Therefore, you have something new to offer your audience and want to help their working memory, use techniques that attract attention (for instance, bold color, movement, size, and position). Then, connect the new items to concepts that already exist in people’s long-term memory.

Let’s say you present a complex cloud infrastructure with multiple components. You gray out most components and display some with bright colors, orienting people’s attention. Simultaneously, you use a metaphor, mentioning that other solutions on the market are like scaffolding—they take listeners to the next level, but are not strong enough to build a foundation. Your solution can be. This strategy directs attention automatically and taps into long-term memory (a visual companion of scaffolding, building, and foundation), allowing your listeners’ brains enough resources to pay attention to other elements, too.

When sharing content with people, you’re asking them to perceive, store, recall, and reproduce information. Their overall cognitive capacity is limited by working memory capacity, which suffers even more with distractions. In virtual environments rife with distractions, then, it’s critical to help your audience’s working memory using the guidelines above.


Carmen Simon, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist and chief science officer at Corporate Visions and B2B DecisionLabs. An entrepreneur and keynote speaker, Dr. Simon has created an approach to creating messages that are easy to process and difficult to forget. More

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