A widely quoted Microsoft study from 2015 tried to tell the world that the time an average person is able to concentrate on a particular subject has fallen to 8 (eight!) seconds. Which is less than the average attention span of a goldfish.

Image by Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Although the goldfish comparison has been recited by many media and has been (mis)used by marketers to reduce their outreach to twitter-style messaging, it makes little sense – IMHO even no sense at all. Because the world of a goldfish ends at the rim of the glass bowl it’s floating in. Your audience aren’t carp. They are real people with unmet needs and innate curiosity. I know no single business person that would be satisfied with only 140-character content or an eight-second presentation. My personal experience as a public speaker actually tells me that you’ve got at least 15 to 20 minutes before you start losing (some) people’s interest. A number that resonates with the ’20’ figure in Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint.

On the other hand, as observed by Nobel prize and Turing award winner Herbert Simon: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” It’s not the number of slides or the detail of the content that determines their attentiveness to your audience. Human interest and attention span are determined by their daily problems, their current mood, and the persuasive power of the presenter. Nearly 9 respondents out of 10 to a Prezi survey acknowledged that a strong narrative and the story behind what’s being presented are critical in maintaining engagement.

Here are a few practical tips to keep, refresh or prolong the attention of your audience:

  • Keep your talk short and crisp, and make sure that the first minutes include any material that you want people to remember;
  • Intrigue, surprise or provoke: ask questions, do a quiz or launch a poll;
  • Pause a few seconds before showing a slide or presenting a key message, to create a sense of anticipation. Pause right after a key point to allow it to sink in.
  • Repeat the point for those who may have wandered, and summarize your key messages at regular times (and certainly at the end of your presentation);
  • Do something emotionally relevant, e.g. tell a joke or bring an anecdote;
  • Switch the medium: draw on a whiteboard, show a video, run a short demo;
  • Change the speaker. If you really have so many important things to tell, just consider bringing a colleague to offload part of your speech to.

tl;dr is internet slang for too long; didn’t read. It’s often used on online discussion forums or in the comments section of an article to say that some text was ignored because of its length. A less diplomatic definition on suggests that the acronym is frequently used by lazy, ignorant people, when something exceeds their ability to read or when they lack the semantic capacity to comprehend or respond to a post.

The title of this blog post, tl;dl, is a variant to the above letterword, and stands for too long; didn’t listen. If you don’t want your listeners to be goldfish, you’d better make sure that your presentations are not tl;dl. Make sure that your presentation is to the point, that your words are worth listening to, and that you present with passion and persuasion.


In last week’s post, I wrote about keeping time and not losing the attention span of your audience. The attention span is the interval that a person in your audience can concentrate mentally on your content. The human attention span varies depending on age. As a rule of thumb you may assume that a child has an attention span of about 5 minutes, while the average adult can stay engaged for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Overall, if you don’t want to lose your listeners, you’d better make sure that your words are worth listening to, that you present with passion, and that you adapt your content and presentation style to your audience.


There are also 2 simple techniques that may help you extend their attention span. I remember them by the “P+R” acronym, which stands for Pause+Repeat (instead of Park+Ride.)

  • Pause a few seconds before showing a slide or presenting a key message, to create a sense of anticipation. Pause right after a key point to allow it to sink in.
  • Repeat the point for those who may have wandered, and summarize your key messages at regular times (and certainly at the end of your presentation)

Some other useful tricks to reactivate your audience, and keep their attention:

  • Do something emotionally relevant, e.g. tell a joke or bring an anecdote.
  • Intrigue, surprise or provoke them; ask a question, do a quiz or launch a poll.
  • Switch the medium: draw on a whiteboard, show a video, run a short demo.
  • Change the speaker. If you really have so many important things to tell, consider bringing a colleague to offload part of your speech.

But always remember that if you can’t explain it in a few a few sentences, your content may be either too complicated or you don’t know what it’s about… So, why not give a try to alternative presentation formats like TED (18 minutes), Pecha Kucha (6 minutes, 40 seconds) or Ignite (5 minutes flat)?

Other blogs and articles to read:

Baby, baby, you’re out of time

Recently, while attending a large event, I did some time checks on the speakers. And to my surprise, less than 1 out of 4 of them managed to complete their presentation within the assigned time slot. Isn’t this a shame…

  • First of all, they are showing no respect for the other speakers. Think of the poor guys that have their speaking slot at the end of the day – or even worse – near the closing of the event.
  • It’s also a nightmare for many organizers. They keep on holding up these 10’, 5’ and 2’ left signs, but some presenters don’t seem to notice them at all.
  • The average attention span of an audience is estimated to last 15-20 minutes. When running over time you’re risking to lose interest on your own content.
  • And, finally, they deprive their audience from lunch or from the opportunity to ask some questions at the end of their speaking slot.


So, here are a few simple tips to keep up with time, and make sure your presentation doesn’t run over.

  • In case the organizers aren’t doing this yet, ask somebody in the audience to take up the role of timekeeper, and to hold up red, yellow, green card (or a 10’, 5’ and 2’ sign) to indicate how much time you have left for finishing your talk.
  • Don’t overload your presentation with visuals (count at least 2 to 3 minutes talking time per slide) and rehearse your speech till it fits into the allowed time slot.
  • If you feel you’re going to run over time, adapt your story and/or your pace, and consider skipping details and less meaningful slides.
  • Plan (and check) a few “milestones” during your presentation. It’s good to know when you are (or when you’re supposed to be) half way – so you don’t have to await the last 5 minutes for speeding up.
  • Always make sure you leave ample time for Q&A at the end. As a rule of thumb you should reserve around 20% of your time budget for questions and discussion. Tell the audience before you start presenting to save their questions for the end. This will prevent you from unwanted interruptions and allow you to plan your presentation properly.

More timekeeping tips and tricks can be found in these articles: