Brilliant: The Science of Smart

How to Get — and Keep — Someone’s Attention

Want to captivate an audience? Here's how

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Sir Lancelot had the Holy Grail. Captain Ahab had Moby Dick. For scientists who study learning, the ultimate quest is to unlock the secrets of engagement. How do we engage students in learning, and then keep them in that state? So ardent is their search that it can lead them down paths that may seem, to the uninitiated, a bit silly — as demonstrated by two recent developments.

Last month, it emerged that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has directed millions of dollars into educational research, has awarded grants to study the use of galvanic skin response sensors in the classroom. Immediately dubbed “mood bracelets” and “educational pedometers” by critics, these are small devices worn around the wrist that gauge the user’s physiological arousal by measuring the amount of sweat on the skin. The idea is that a teacher instructing a roomful of students wearing the devices would instantly know who was engaged and who was bored or distracted. The problem is that the sensors are inexact indicators of the wearer’s mental state: a student’s nervous system might be active because there’s test coming up next period — or because there’s an attractive classmate one desk over.

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Then last week, a professor of physics education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia reported the results of a pilot study using special glasses that track where and how long wearers direct their gaze. After analyzing the data produced by undergraduates who wore the glasses during lectures, professor David Rosengrant concluded that it was not the case, as many teachers believe, that students were most engaged for the first 15 minutes or so of class, after which their attention gradually slacked off. Rather, he said, student engagement ebbed and flowed over the course of the 70-minute lecture, and spiked whenever the professor used humor, stood close to the student, or talked about material that was not included in the Power Point presentation projected on a screen at the front of the room. Rosengrant also determined that cell phones and the web — especially Facebook — were the greatest obstacles to maintaining students’ engagement in the classroom.

Interesting, but hardly revelatory. Clearly, such devices have a long way to go before they can offer real insight into students’ thoughts and feelings. The irony is that, after many years of investigation, scientists already have a pretty good idea of what captures the attention of an audience — whether it’s students in a classroom, a group of coworkers at a meeting, or a gathering of guests in front of whom you’re making a toast. Follow the strategies below, and you won’t need a sweat sensor or special glasses to know that your listeners are fully engaged.

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Stimulate curiosity. “Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question,” notes Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia. “But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you.” Take the information you want your audience to know by the end and frame a question that will direct your listeners toward that answer.

Introduce change and surprise. Human beings quickly become habituated to the status quo. When something in our environment shifts, however, we start paying attention again. A good rule of thumb is to switch things up every 15 minutes or so — tell a joke or a story, show a picture, address your topic in a different way.

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Stress relevance and concreteness. The human mind can’t handle too much abstraction. Bring your ideas down to earth by explaining how they connect to your listeners’ lives, and by embedding sensory details — what things look, sound, feel and taste like — into your account.

Tell stories. Researchers who study human cognition say that stories are “psychologically privileged” — that is, our minds treat them differently than other kinds of information. We understand them better, remember them more accurately, and we find them more engaging to listen to in the first place. When planning your presentation, think about how to capture your ideas in a narrative. And remember, good stories usually have strong characters, a conflict — the main character can’t get what he wants — and complications on the way to overcoming that conflict. Come to think of it, a lot like the stories of the Holy Grail and Moby Dick.