All the work you’ve put into your presentation doesn’t matter if you don’t have the audience’s attention. But how exactly does human attention work?

Before we share ideas about how to gain or maintain attention, we have to know the inner workings. In the text, Modeling Human and Organizational Behavior: Application to Military Simulations, by the National Research Council, the basic theories of human attention are outlined. We’ll look at two of those theories, selective and divided attention. Then, we’ll see how we can apply them to capture the attention of our audiences. So let’s dig into how human attention works.

Selective Attention

A spotlight brings certain things to the center of attention. Likewise, selective attention theory says that we select what we focus on from moment to moment. Author and speaker Kendra Cherry defines it this way, “we center our attention on certain important elements of our environment while other things blend into the background or pass us by completely unnoticed.”

We’d like to believe we can pay attention to many things at once. But the truth is, we simply don’t have the brain “bandwidth” for that. Researcher E. Colin Cherry studied how much participants heard and retained when more than one conversation was occurring. He discovered that when participants were focused on one conversation, he could change the language of the other conversation without them noticing. So if you are giving a presentation, you want to have the focused attention of your audience. Otherwise, you might as well be speaking in a language they don’t understand.

Divided Attention

Divided attention is better known as multitasking. It is the theory that humans can divide our attention because we have multiple brain “channels” operating at the same time. In an article for The International Journal of Design, Saskia Bakker and Karin Niemantsverdriet say, “these can be bodily activities (e.g., cycling), sensorial activities (e.g., listening to music), cognitive activities (e.g., thinking about an upcoming agenda item), or combinations of the three.”

This theory has come under scrutiny recently. Some researchers have discovered that we aren’t truly multitasking, but instead, are only switching between channels quickly. However, in his book Practical Human Factors for Pilots, David Moriarty says it’s more likely that we are able to multitask when the activities don’t use the same brain channels, or at least don’t use them in the same way. For example, he says a driver may be able to stay in his lane while talking to a passenger. That’s because he’s using two separate neural mechanisms. But it would be more difficult for him to stay in his lane while texting on the phone. Why? Both of those tasks require “visuospatial processing.”

So How Do We Apply This?

We know humans have limited attention capacity. So we have to make sure our presentation is in our audience’s attention “spotlight.” That means we need to reduce the other sensory input competing for their attention. And sensory input can come from about anywhere. The temperature of the room, the sound in the hall, a poorly designed or placed graphic can all compete for attention.

As far as divided attention is concerned, we need to make sure the “channels” of our presentations aren’t competing. The audience may find it relatively easy to process a graphic while you explain it. However, if you put a quote or lots of words on the screen while continuing to talk, they won’t be able to multitask because both channels are asking them to process words at the same time.

Human attention is a limited but valuable resource—one you’ll both need to understand and compete for as a speaker. The theories of selective and divided attention can help us win this battle.

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