Expect the worst — to get the best:

What you need to know before making any presentation.

By Tosh Ichikawa, Partnerships Manager

My whole life I’ve always been drawn to people who can command an audience and tell a good story.

I’d often ask myself questions like: “why is everyone listening to her, but not him?” or “why is it so much easier to remember stuff when THAT person talks?”

It wasn’t just their distinctive voice or ability to speak in public that caught my attention, it was much more than that. They seemed to have an ability to put themselves in the shoes of the audience, so that they were only saying things that everyone could understand. And that’s the key.

Admittedly, I’ve also always had this fear that the older I get, the less people will want to listen to my shit. So to avoid that sad and lonely situation, I decided to start preparations early, investigate the question: “how can I make it easier for people to understand what i’m saying?” and explore what is it that enable people to hold the attention of an audience.

Luckily, over the past few years, as part of my job, I’ve had the privilege of listening to and moderating well over 400 presentations from companies, startups and individuals that all wanted to say something to an audience. And by “say something” I mean communicate a point, an idea, a thought process or a story (usually in pitch form).

After a while, one begins to see what works and what doesn’t. For example, just dumping data onto your audience without explaining why they should care about the data, doesn’t work.

Similarly, expecting people to care enough so that they will listen with their undivided attention, that doesn’t work either. So instead of taking the traditional route by focusing on how to structure your presentation or talk, I want to shift the focus onto the audience. After all, they are the reason we are presenting. And without them, there would be no point in opening our mouths.

So here to help you are my “3 Golden Assumptions” about the audience.

If you sense you’ve lost some people, just ask: “have I lost anyone?”

1. Short Attention Span

The average attention span of a human in the year 2000 was 12 seconds. More recently in 2015, this average was reduced to 8.25 seconds.

To put this in perspective, the attention span of the humble goldfish is nine seconds. So we officially now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.

Now that’s not to say that people can’t follow a long sentence or understand a complicated idea. Rather, what this means is that you shouldn’t EXPECT the audience to retain their attention for more than eight seconds at a time. And to make things more cloudy (especially in a one-on-one situation), it’s very difficult to know when you’ve lost someone as people naturally tend to nod, squint their eyes and say things like “oh, absolutely”, when really they haven’t understood anything.

So whether you believe that the average attention span of your audience is eight seconds or not, it really doesn’t matter. You’re better of expecting people to have a shorter attention span than a longer one, so that you can make sure people are indeed following you all the way through your presentation.

Keep your sentences short, and don’t be afraid to pause (even if it feels awkward for you). If you sense you’ve lost some people, just ask: “have I lost anyone?”


2. People Don’t Care …about you

It is foolish to expect people to automatically or inherently care about you, what you do, your business or idea (collectively “Your Shit”). And it’s really not so hard to understand why.

Well let’s think about it. Unless you’re famous or some sort of authority, why should they care about Your Shit? People are too busy caring about their own shit, and you’re just one more person in their busy lives. And until you give them a reason to care about Your Shit, they will continue to not.

This might sound harsh but it’s a relatively safe assumption to make. For example, what you’ve been working on for the past 3 years, or 3 months or 3 weeks, is your baby. It’s the centre of your universe. You know everything about it and it understandably means the world to you. But it means nothing to anyone else. They don’t know anything about it and more importantly, you have yet to demonstrate why they should care about it. Not all ideas are exciting to everyone and making someone care about anything is a lot more complex than you would think.

So next time you walk into a room full of people, don’t expect them to be quieting each other, anticipating the magic that’ll be coming out of your mouth. Rather, imagine them (literally and/or figuratively) sitting back in their seats, staring at their phones and trying to find love on Tinder. Your job is to get them to put their phones down, then to listen to you, then to sit up, then to get excited or moved by you, and then to root for you. This doesn’t happen automatically and you shouldn’t expect it to. It involves a systematic process and I’ll like to share my thoughts on that in a future article. For now, just be aware that when you enter the room, care factor is zero, and start from there.


3. Less is more

In a presentation setting, less is always more for the audience. I see it over and over again. Presenters have 5 minutes to present and try to squeeze in 10 minutes of material. In the end, the audience absorbs 1 minute of material (if that). Ok i’m making those figures up, but it’s not so far from the truth and you get my point.

If you want to just “dump data”, then print out brochures and hand them out. There is no need for you to be there as they can read all that information in their own time, and at their own pace. But if you are presenting to an audience, they have signed up to hear YOU talk. You’re there because you have something to say and you want to make sure that as many people can understand and absorb that in the limited amount of time you’ve been given. By respecting the idea of “less is more” and limiting how much you say, you not only increase the chance of the audience following and digesting what you’re saying, but you also force yourself to focus only on the most fundamental and core aspects of whatever it is that you want to say.

And so if you accept that people have an astonishingly short attention span and give zero fucks about you (to begin with), then it’s safe to assume that less is more.

And that’s it. My 3 Golden Assumptions. Next time you are preparing for a presentation, try to remember them.

By expecting the worst (low attention span, they don’t care about me, and they can’t digest so much), you better prepare yourself (mentally and content wise). Instead of optimistically or foolishly expecting the audience to understand and/or care about what you’re saying, you start low and work your way up.

More about me

Today I spend part of my time as the Partnerships Manager at Mentally Friendly (a digital design studio that focuses on products, organisational and policy design) and the other part consulting on Story-Design under my own consultancy business. If you’d like to chat about either, get in touch.


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