In a presentation of medium interest--not too boring and not too exciting--how long will it take for your audience tune out? The human brain has an onboard clock that times out after exactly--ten minutes. Neuroscience proves it.

According to John Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington, you have 9 minutes and 59 seconds to keep your audience's attention. After that, you have to take active steps to keep then engaged. Despite the growth of social media and bit-sized nuggets of content, the 10-minute rule seems to remain intact. It also applies around the world.

In the last two weeks I've had conversations with two of my students who are enrolled in class I teach in a Harvard executive education program. The students are extremely successful building developers. They both had stories of running up against the 10-minute barrier.

One student pitched a high-level government official in Malaysia for the opportunity to build a significant project. He was given "ten minutes and ten minutes only." Another student had prepared a detailed 90-minute presentation to pitch a wealthy land owner in the U.S. The potential client was leaning toward a competitor. The land owner entered the meeting and said, "I don't know why I'm even here. You've got ten minutes." My student quickly hit the main points and won the project, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

My Harvard students will be pitching their final projects to a group of evaluators this summer. They've each been given 10 minutes and not a minute more. 

Why 10 minutes?

Medina told me that our brains seem to be wired to some primitive timing mechanism. After 10 minutes, your audience's attention will plummet. But there's hope. Just as the primitive brain has an onboard timer, it also has systems that allow it to be re-engaged.

Cover the Entire Story in the First 10 Minutes 

Richard Branson once told me that he prefers business pitches that are are no more than 10 minutes in length. Ten minutes is plenty of time to get your idea across, he said. Although your meeting might be scheduled for an hour, create a presentation that covers your main ideas in the first ten minutes. Don't squander your audience's peak attention time. A business pitch isn't like a two-hour movie where you can to draw out the suspense until the end. Don't tease them; tell them.

Start your presentation with the headline. Here's an example: "Today I want to talk to you about lowering the cost of doing business by 80 percent." Right out of the gate, give your audience a reason to listen.

Bait the Hook

John Medina says you can re-engage your audience after 10-minutes by "baiting the hook." Bait includes anything that's "rich in emotion." The most effective emotional props include stories, photos, videos and demonstrations.

If you time a video to play just as your audience's attention begins to decline, you'll bring them back into the presentation. Videos run the gamut. They may include a customer testimonial, a case study or example, or something humorous that complements the theme of your presentation. Showing a video is my favorite way to give the audience a break from the speaker and to re-engage them in the topic. 

Stick to the Rule of Three

Simply put, we can only remember about three pieces of information in short-term memory. If you have 10 minutes to get someone's attention, don't give them 18 messages to remember. Give them three. For example:

  • Three reasons your boss should give you a promotion
  • Three benefits of your product
  • Three ways to make money by investing in your company

You might not like the fact that you only have 10 minutes to make your point, but our brains don't care. We're wired to pay attention for 10 minutes. Get to the point, make it memorable and you'll be more likely to sell your idea.