Attention! Be engaging

How do you encourage engagement? How do we motivate people to listen to what we have to say? Keep their attention!

But how do you do that? How do you maintain the interest in what you are talking about? To stop your listeners getting bored, you must compete with their own mental, visual, auditory distractions. Once your audience has lost interest, it is hard to regain it.

Maintaining attention and interest is fundamental to conveying your message and doing so successfully. Without attention, there is no listening and if the other person isn’t listening, you may as well be talking to yourself.

Whether at work or in your home life, we’ve all been in the position, where we have told the other person something, but the conversation that follows shows that very little of what you have said has been absorbed. They may ask you questions, the answers to which were very clearly covered in the conversation, or they may completely forget that you asked them to do something.

The initial part of a conversation is usually the most important as this will often shape how things evolve and whether a message is conveyed. If the person you are talking to quickly rejects your idea, they are unlikely to continue listening and even more unlikely to change their mind later. Maybe this is pride, maybe a need to not challenge out decision-making skills. Either way, their is good evidence to suggest once we make our initial assessment it is difficult for it to be changed.

The problem with attention is that during conversations people are always losing the thread. Reflect on what happens when you are listening to someone else, there will be points that your mind starts to wander. There are many reasons why, despite losing the thread of a conversation or needing clarification, we do not ask for it, we:

  • don’t want to appear stupid or impolite
  • have made up our minds that this conversation is irrelevant and switched off
  • feel guilty for letting out minds wander
  • have other things to do, so don’t want to slow the conversation down

When talking to someone else, you may notice the signs that attention is faltering, but if we are really honest we are not as good at it as we should be and it is up to us to spot the signs and act accordingly. What are some of the signs?

  • Are they relaxed? If the listener appears tense, with fixed eye contact and little head movement, they are trying to show that they are focused on you, but in truth, something else has their attention.
  • Smiling too long or too much? Again they are displaying the impression of support and encouragement, but are likely somewhere else.
  • Are they sitting still? Moving too much, fidgeting, finger tapping, doodling, checking their phone are all signs that they are bored or their attention is elsewhere.
  • Read their body language. Are they mirroring you with the placement of arms legs and head, are they leaning forwards, they are likely engaged. Are they turned away from you? Feet pointing to the door? Their subconscious is telling you all you need to know.

With these signs in mind, is there anything to be done to reduce them. There are a few reasons why those listening may start to falter in their attention:

  • Visual distraction: This can be anything from something stuck in your teeth, a mobile phone on the desk, artwork or a television. The number of times I have been on a home visit to a patient’s home and experienced:

Me: Do you mind if we turn the TV off?
Patient: It’s okay Doc, I’ll mute it…
Me: Erm, it may be less distracting if we turn it off?
Patient: Nah, it’s fine.

The problem, it isn’t fine, it distracts both me and the patient. It would be interesting to review how much is actually retained in this situation as I know from experience that it is often difficult to retain all information given to patients, even without distraction.

If talking to someone, make sure to limit the distraction. If you want to convey a message, get people interested in what you are talking about, the need to be fully engage. A visual distraction is a losing battle, their brain is running their own thought process ‘that’s a nice picture, I’ve seen something similar before, was it London? Paris?’ - yep, they haven’t heard a word.

  • Disagreement: If the other person doesn’t agree with you, their brain will quickly wander, the conversation is over. Their eyes may look up to the left or right as they visualise their alternative argument, their body language may become more defensive. The conversation is lost.

  • Interruption: This can be physical, telephone call, someone interrupts, asks a question unrelated to what you are saying or can be within your listener’s brain. They’re thinking much faster than you are talking, the words you use may have triggered a memory, a thought, an image. If you are lucky it may be fleeting, if not, they will miss a large chunk of what you are saying.

Breaks can kill attention, as an example, think of a time you have been watching a film on TV, you are invested emotionally, the main protagonist is being hunted by the vicious serial killer, they are hiding in the basement, just about to be found… Advertisement Break. After 5 minutes, we rejoin the situation, but the emotion is gone.

If you are trying to ‘sell’ your idea, don’t put a break into your presentation. Decisions are often emotional, they ‘feel right’. You can give all the logic in the world, but if it doesn’t ‘feel right’, no deal. If there is an interruption or unintentional break, you may have to try and regain that emotional investment, summarise, where you were and try to get the other person back to the situation.

You will often only get one chance to convince people. If you feel that you cannot regain their attention and level of emotional investment, it may be better to postpone the discussion for another time.

What now?

What do you do with your new super power? Being able to read the situation and your listener better is a great advantage. Preparing the situation to avoid interruptions can help prevent loss of information or understanding by your listener. If you feel that you are losing the conversation, if engagement is falling, make a note of it to reflect on it later, but in that moment confront it, may be even highlight it to the listener: ‘I feel like I may have lost you there, do you want me to go over that again?’, or maybe even follow the old adage:

Say what you are going to say, say it, say what you just said.