Future Present presentation cartoon
The new research shows that within 10 minutes, 48% of the audience is thinking about something other than the presentation.
Chloe Shakesby

Ever felt sleepy while watching a presentation? Here's why - and how to stop it happening when you present

We’ve all been there - in a meeting that feels like it might never end. But according to this new research, it could only take a few minutes for you to drift off during a PowerPoint presentation.

Research from York-based presentation specialists, Future Presents, has revealed that UK office workers take less than six minutes to drift off during a PowerPoint presentation - and 58 per cent claimed to have almost fallen asleep during one in the last year.

The research takes information from 2k office workers in the UK and delves into what exactly happens while watching someone present.

According to the research, 22 per cent start to drift off less than six minutes into a presentation, and by 10 minutes, 48 per cent are thinking about more interesting things (including food, boxsets and relationships - in that order.)

Lyndon Nicholson, CEO of Future Present, said: “With the advent of smartphones, the human attention is getting shorter and shorter. Our research showed that astonishingly almost a quarter of your audience has already disengaged within six minutes of your PowerPoint slide show starting.

“If your presentation is a pitch to win work or funding; this means you’ve probably only just covered the background before you’ve lost your client or investor’s attention. The key is keeping people invested and that means creating real audience engagement.”

Earlier this year, the BBC reported on how to avoid mid-meeting sleepiness after US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was caught falling asleep in meetings. They suggested that arranging your meetings at the right time and place could help.

Elise Keith, founder of US-based meeting coaching company Lucid Meetings, said: “Things like status updates and logical thinking - you want to do those earlier in the morning, when sharpness and enthusiasm are at their height.

“Closer to the end of the day is a really good time for brainstorming… because the energy that you had in the morning has started to wear off. People loosen up, which is also what you want when you’re trying to elicit cool ideas.”

The BBC also suggested that meeting in “unconvential locations” could help boost creativity.

A 2018 piece from Fast Company however, said it was more to do with the presenter’s skills.

“When your sentence length and pacing stay at the same level throughout your presentation, it produces a monotonous effect that can literally make your listeners feel sleepy,” wrote Anett Grant.

Organisational psychologist with Future Presents, Susie Phillips-Baker, suggested that by changing the way slides are presented, businesses and individuals have a higher chance of retaining attention.

“By following some simple cognitive communications principles it’s easy to enhance the effectiveness of your presentations and play to the strengths of human information processing abilities.

“Taking in lots of visual and auditory information can place high demands on the working memory, so by reducing the processing demands on the audience, you can essentially avoid the mind wandering or switching off.”

Susie laid out some of the reasons that people switch off during presentations, and how to combat them.

People want to hear what you can do for them more than anything else. Most PowerPoint presentations start with background slides from the organisation presenting.

Given that the first 5 minutes are the most crucial, Susie advises that you cut straight to demonstrating you understand them and their issues, and discussing how you can help - then include your bio in your appendix.

Too much information can be off-putting. Cramming lots onto each slide can seem overwhelming - and Susie says that often presenters don’t give their audience time to process the information before moving on.

Likewise, too many slides being flicked through quickly increases the cognitive load for the audience so they will more quickly lose attention.

People don’t want to be passive observers. Audience engagement is all about the magic five minutes. Susie’s advice is to never speak for more than five minutes without getting them to talk back to you or ask them a question to encourage participation.

It checks that they’re listening and stops them drifting off. It also allows the audience to switch between active and passive activities which keeps them engaged.

This one works both ways. Judi James, author and workplace culture expert, said of meeting participants: “Speak up during the first three minutes.

“It gets your voice into the room and allows you to feel like a contributor not a listener.”

Presentations need to be flexible for the audience. Susie suggests that you think about menu creation, asking your audience what they want to talk about and having colour-coded option slides prepared that you can jump to.

This means you can adapt the presentation on the fly – meaning you’re prepared for any question or eventuality.

Clearly signposting sections also ensures they get the right amount of information, and that their cognitive expectations are being met which reduces cognitive load and will put you as the presenter in good favour.

Don’t rely too heavily on text - images are important! It may seem like an obvious one, but avoid slides with lots of text. Susie says that two to three words per slide are optimal.

Images are key as 90 per cent of information transmitted to the brain is visual, but avoid naff clipart at all costs.

Remember that images should assist in a metaphorical sense to set the tone for what the audience is hearing and to help the presentation flow; they don’t necessarily have to have a literal connection, but make it relevant or their minds will wander on to what that odd image in the corner is and they’ll stop listening!

Lots of people make similar-looking PowerPoints. Microsoft have been innovating with PowerPoint over the past few years and some of the tools and features are now unparalleled.

Where appropriate, Susie suggests that you use the clever animation tools now included in the software to slide your message across the screen point by point and tell the story in clear chunks.

Our attention is drawn to what is different, so moving images work well for helping the audience to process information effectively.

Being too formal can alienate your audience People take in information better when the narration is informal and conversational, rather than formal.

Susie advises that storytelling can also be very effective in presentations as it engages the audience on a more personal level.

You can assist your audience in creating a narrative by clearly defining the topic and presenting a road map which tells them what’s coming and how they are going to get there.

Annet Grant wrote: “You might’ve done lots of homework and have loads of great data points to share, but if you don’t frame your message as a narrative, you’re not going to engage your audience.

“If you’re able to tell a story that connects your key points in a meaningful way, you’re much less likely to lose your audience to an obvious snooze.”

Too many things to focus on can detract from what you want to say. One of PowerPoint’s secret weapons is the ‘b’ key on your keyboard, says Susie.

There are times when you want the audience’s attention just on you. Hitting ‘b’ will turn your screen black.

This again reduces the high demands from visual and auditory information and signals a change which maintains attention. Plus with nothing else to look at, your audience can’t help but focus on you.

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