Thought Leadership

The Attention Game: Winning Strategies for Engaging Your Audience

April 18, 2023

You have spent hours and hours working on your PowerPoint slides to get them exactly right. Your team has mined through tabs of data to find the validation you need to back up your recommendations. Now you are standing in front of your clients or boss to talk through the results. Then you see someone check their phone. Or the air conditioning kicks on in the room and makes it harder for you to project your voice. Or you click “next slide” but the transition takes a long time. And just like that, you’ve lost your audience. It is incredible how quickly you can lose credibility or trust from an audience if you have not prepared properly.

In addition to spending 25 years in market research, I have been a professional magician for half of my life. I have stood on stage in front of thousands and been featured on the hit TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” (where I successfully fooled them). During that time, I worked with some of the best directors and choreographers to ensure that I maximized my effectiveness in front of an audience. And I have taken those learnings and brought them over to my research career.

When I am standing in front of a client or colleague, my goal is to convey confidence and trust that the content of my talk is worth their time and attention. Here are four tips to help you go from just “talking” to “presenting.”

The Tools of Attention Control

  1. Direction. We have more distractions now than ever. If you want to ensure your audience is focused on what you want them to focus on, then you need to direct them with more than just the content of the page. Have you ever been walking down the street and seen someone looking up into a tree? What is the first thing you do? You look up into the tree as well. That is because people focus on what you focus on. If you are showing a PowerPoint slide while you are also making eye contact with someone, then they must choose where their attention should go. Do they look at you or look at the slide? If you want someone to look at your slide, then you should look at it yourself. If you are introducing yourself or setting up the content of the research, you should not be projecting anything that requires reading.
  2. Sound. People do not respond to sound alone. They respond to changes in sound. For example, if you are in a conference room and the air conditioning kicks on, everyone notices it. But after a couple of minutes, that sound becomes background noise and is not noticed again until it turns off. The same can be said for the way you present. If you are using a monotone voice, then you will become background noise. Instead, change the inflection and speech patterns of your voice when you get to more important talking points. Even if you must hold a moment of silence for what seems like a second or two too long, at least you are subconsciously saying to the audience that something is “different.” For example, I might conclude a slide by saying, “You will see that the levels of ad spend have a … (slightly louder) direct … (pause) … correlation … (back to normal speed) with ad awareness.” Someone checking their phone will notice the difference in pace and pull their attention back to you.
  3. Contrast. Much like sound, visual elements are also impacted by differences. We know this to be true, which is why we put callout boxes on PowerPoint slides or bold text to emphasize it. But the same is true for you as a presenter. If you are standing in one spot with your hands holding a clicker for five minutes, then you are losing an important visual element for establishing trust during a presentation. While I am not suggesting walking back and forth like you are on a treadmill, you should occasionally change your position. Change the direction your body is facing (for example, moving from the left side of the audience to the right side). Step forward when you want to emphasize a point.
  4. Inherent attention. Do you know what people find the most interesting topic of conversation in the world? Themselves. There are two great ways to establish a personal connection with people in your audience. The first is to use the names of people in the audience as examples. For example, if the CEO in the front row is named Lauren, you could say, “We created a five-cluster segmentation model … so if Lauren (point to Lauren) was a heavy brand user with a lower share of wallet, then she would be in segment A.” Doing this once or twice will put the rest of the audience on alert that their name could be called at any time.

The second method to establish a connection is my favorite and the most powerful. Eye contact. My general rule of thumb is to change who I am making eye contact with for each thought I am trying to convey. For example, I might say, “(Looking at person A) Hello, my name is David Corsaro from Escalent and we have spent the last six weeks examining multiple product concepts (slight turn to look at person B), and today we are going to highlight which ones gathered the greatest consumer appeal and why. (Turn to person C) If anyone has any questions throughout the presentation, please let me know.” I use this technique constantly and I can tell you that when I am done presenting, people always tell me that they feel like I was talking “to” them, and not “at” them.

Some of these techniques might seem obvious, but the next time you are at a conference, notice the speed, contrast, direction and attention of the speaker. Then look around the room to see how well they are capturing the interest of the audience. Or better yet, record yourself doing a trial run of your presentation. Do it once as you normally would and again incorporating all these techniques. When you watch both recordings, you will notice a major difference. My next blog post will be about unique and interesting methods for problem solving in research. Stay tuned.

And until then, if you want to talk more about attention, problem solving, or magic, let’s connect!


David Corsaro
Vice President, Consumer & Retail

For over 25 years, David has been a "go to"​ guy for market research expertise in a variety of categories including (but not limited to) financial services, media, consumer packaged goods, pharmaceuticals, and alcohol beverages. He has presented case studies at several major market research conferences covering shopper insights, brand and advertising tracking and effectiveness, segmentation, and innovation work. David delivers tactical real-world recommendations that can be applied to all areas of client engagement such as the sales team, brand team, senior management, and the ad agency. David continues to exceed client expectations by answering business objectives quickly and on budget. His ability to control an audience from 1 to 1000 (and instill trust and confidence in his recommendations) is truly....."magical!"