Here's a sobering scientific fact: 10 minutes into your presentation, most audience members are surreptitiously looking at their watches.

Blame their brains. Writes John Medina in Brain Rules, "before the first quarter hour is over in a typical presentation, people usually have checked out. The brain seems to be making choices according to some stubborn timing pattern, undoubtedly influenced by both culture and gene."

And that's not the only way people's brains are affecting their ability to pay attention to your brilliant content. For example, the brain pays more attention to the core of an idea than to details.

"Normally," writes Medina, "if we don't know the gist--the meaning--of information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details. The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone."

And here's a third crucial concept from science: Emotions get our attention. Medina writes, "Emotionally charged events are better remembered--for longer, and with more accuracy--than neutral events. When your brain detects an emotionally charged event, your amygdala (a part of your brain that helps created and maintain emotions), releases the chemical dopamine into your system. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-It notes that reads, 'Remember this!'"

How do you apply scientific knowledge of the brain to making your next presentation compelling and memorable? Medina recommends three strategies:

1. Divide presentations into 10-minute segments. A while ago, Medina decided "that every lecture I'd ever give would be organized into segments, and that each segment would last only 10 minutes."

2. Emphasize meaning and use details to reinforce this core concept. Medina carefully structures his 10-minute chunks so that each segment covers "a single core concept--always large, always general, and always explainable in one minute. The brain processes meaning before detail, and the brain likes hierarchy. Starting with general concepts naturally leads to explaining information in a hierarchical fashion. Give the general idea first, before diving into details, and you will see a 40 percent improvement in understanding."

Medina then used the other nine minutes in the segment to "provide a detailed description of that single general concept. The trick was to ensure that each detail could be easily traced back to the general concept with minimal intellectual effort."

3. Appeal to audience members' emotions. After 9 minutes and 59 seconds, the audience's attention is getting ready to plummet to near zero. What does the audience need? An emotionally charged stimuli. 

"Every 10 minutes in my lecture," Medina writes, "I decided to give my audiences a break from the fire hose of information and send them a relevant emotional charge, which I now call 'hooks.'" Medina found the most successful hooks always followed three principles:

  • The hook must trigger an emotion. "Fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity--the entire emotional palette can be stimulated, and all work well," Medina advises. "I employ survival issues here, describing a threatening event . . . or something triggering pattern matching. Narratives can be especially strong, especially if they are crips and to the point."
  • The hook has to be relevant. It can't just be any anecdote. You can simply crack a joke or deliver some irrelevant story--you need to relate your emotional moment to the content you're conveying.
  • The hook has to go between segments. The hook can go at the end of the 10-minute segment, looking backward and summarizing the material. Or it can go at the beginning of a module to anticipate some aspect of content.

Will this model--dividing content into 10-minute segments, emphasizing core concepts and using emotion--work for you? 

"All I know for sure," writes Medina, "is that the brain doesn't pay attention to boring things, and I am as sick of boring presentations as you are."