Getting attention — the comedy approach

One of the joys of Twitter is that people one follows often point to things that one would otherwise have missed. It was by that route that I became aware of the work of Chris Atherton. She is a specialist in visual perception, cognition and presentation skills. I first encountered her work when someone pointed me to her Slideshare presentation, “Visual attention: a psychologist’s perspective”, which provides a high-level overview of the issue of cognitive load in presentations.

Chris’s blog is full of valuable insights, as is her twitterstream. Her recent post on giving presentations is a great example. I especially like the way it starts — she was going to send some thoughts about presentations to a friend, but it got out of hand.

So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

It’s a great post, and full of really usable advice. Unlike many pontificators about Powerpoint, Chris shuns all those rules about structure.

Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

  • Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
  • Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
  • The 10/20/30 rule

These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose.

Ultimately, good presenters just need to bear one thing in mind:

Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

Chris then elaborates on what some of those rules are. I would summarise them here, but that would deprive you of the experience of reading her post and the excellent comments on it. I just want to single out one of those comments because it threw something into sharp focus for me.

At the end of a substantial comment, Martin Shovel remarked:

A thesis should be expressed in the form of a proposition – i.e. a sentence – the simpler and shorter the better! – that asserts or denies something about the content. ‘My holiday in Italy’ isn’t propositional; whereas ‘holidays in Italy are a nightmare’ is. It’s good to think of your proposition in the following way. Imagine you’re about to give your presentation when the fire-alarm suddenly goes off. Now you find yourself with only 30 seconds in which to sum up the point of your presentation – what you say in those 30 seconds should be your proposition.

Reading this, I was reminded of Robert McKee’s Story, and of the experience of watching a good comedian. In his exposition of good screenwriting McKee is clear that the script needs to hold the audience’s attention (the theme of bonding with the audience runs through the book), and that it often does that by tantalising the audience. Here he is at the very start of the book, for example:

When talented people write badly it’s generally for one of two reasons: Either they’re blinded by an idea they feel compelled to prove or they’re driven by an emotion they must express. When talented people write well, it is generally for this reason: They’re moved by a desire to touch the audience.


No film can be made to work without an understanding of the reactions and anticipations of the audience. You must shape your story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audience’s desires. The audience is a force as determining of story as any other element. For without it, the creative act is pointless.

A good stand-up comedian often does a similar thing. For example, here (jump to 3’33” for the relevant section) is Alun Cochrane sharing his thoughts on trains, peaches and Red Bull (depending on where you work, this may contain language that is NSFW):

The way he builds the scenario layer by layer retains the audience’s attention and even allows him room for digressions. It is a lesson worth learning. Few comedians or screenplays use bullet points to make their point (apart from the rare examples where bullet points are the point). They command attention by tantalising, asking questions without obvious answers, by engaging the audience’s brains.

Getting attention isn’t just a necessity for scriptwriters, comedians or lecturers. I think anyone who has a message to convey, in whatever format, (including driving organisational change) needs to be good at this.

3 thoughts on “Getting attention — the comedy approach”

  1. Hi Mark,

    A very belated ‘thank you’ for your kind words :)

    Like you, I’m intrigued by the relationship between stand-up comedy (and how it holds our attention) and ‘ordinary’ presentation skills. I bought — but am ashamed to say, haven’t finished, because of being preoccupied with work — Oliver Double’s getting the joke, from which I’m hoping to learn some tips and tricks about getting and keeping attention. It almost feels wrong to try to deconstruct comedy (c.f. destroying interest in perfectly good books by studying them at school), but I think there’s too much good stuff in there not to!



  2. The first set of training that presenters should do is toastmasters or something like that.

    The second is improv. Because getting attention is good and being present is even better.

    Being present kinda meets McKee’s proviso as well – if you’re present then you’re alive to the audience. And in being alive to them you can work with them to not only satisfy their current desires but to meet the desires they never knew they had.

    Johnnie Moore is pretty awesome in this area…

  3. BTW I have had a go at stand up comedy. The first time I did OK. The second time I died.

    And dying on stage is very important. Every good presenter will have died at least once.

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