By: Lily Zhou (Biography & Disclosures), no disclosures
What I did before
I used to feel crushed when looking up from notes during a presentation to a packed lecture hall of colleagues intensely concentrating ….on their smartphones. It is hard not to feel discouraged. If only I had the insights of Osler, the wit of Churchill and the stage presence of Obama, my audience would forever be on the edge of those squeaky swivel seats, drinking in every minutia. Alas, the reality pales and those late hours in front of the computer all those weeks before never seem enough to capture the ever shrinking attention span of the adult learner.
What changed my teaching practice
While placating my own short attention span, listening to a podcast during a flight, I came across the research of Killingsworth and Gilbert’s on mindfulness and happiness . Using an iPhone application for experience sampling, the researchers asked participants to respond in real time to questions about what task they were doing, how happy they felt and if they were “thinking about something other than what [they’re] currently doing”. For all activities, regression analysis showed participants reported being less happy when their minds were wandering. For all activities except sexual intercourse, at least 30% of participants reported mind wander. For intercourse, this number dropped to …… 10% . The authors thus concluded a “human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
What I do now
What a relief to be offered context. It’s not you, it’s your audience! I am not ambitious enough to aspire to be more engaging than intercourse so now I build all presentations starting from the assumption people’s minds WILL wander. I like to think of these as fault tolerant presentations that welcome people to return to the presentation after that email or text.
1.) Start with a table of content or list of objectives and reuse this slide as a map and progress bar through the presentation. By laying out the mental journal ahead when you start and by referring to it as you go, you allow people to be oriented if they take a mental detour when the slide shows up again. I find by using it, I am also forced to be more thoughtful about arranging the content in a more logical progression.
2.) Break up your presentation and provide recaps of take-home points at transitions. By overtly marking transitions and offering summaries of key points you were building to, you solidify those points for people who were following and make it easy for people who have drifted off to become re-engaged. It
can also serve as a mental prompt for you to change up your energy to help create the illusion of a series of shorter presentations.
3.) Attempt humor. I’ve never been someone with the ability to set the room laughing with an improvised one liner. An embarrassing amount of time is sacrificed plotting out the wording and delivery of jokes for a very narrow audience in the weeks leading up the presentation. This is not under the illusion people will think I am any funnier but because of all those times I drifted off in lectures, only to be pulled back in by the room laughing at a joke I missed. Research shows mind wandering occurs less frequently when people are happier both in the lab using sustained attention to response tasks  and in real life settings by experience sampling . If attempting jokes on top of public speaking is asking for way too much, vacation photos and internet memes from other presenters probably fill a similar niche.
How your experience is relevant to teachers in the Faculty of Medicine
Love it or hate it, presenting to our peers is an inevitable component of being a physician. Starting with the assumption that people will lose focus during presentations allows us to be kinder to both ourselves as presenters and towards the audience as learners. In addition to strategies to retain their attention, it is important to include strategies to re-engage those who have drifted off, which is inevitable unless your presentations are literally better than sex.
Further Reading (Reference articles and add resources here)
1. Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science. 2010;330:932-932.
2. Killingsworth MA. Want to be happier? Stay in the moment [Video]. TED Talks. 2011. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_killingsworth_want_to_be_happier_stay_in_the_moment. Accessed April 26, 2018.
3. McVay JC, Kane MJ, Kwapil TR. Tracking the train of thought from the laboratory into everyday life: An experience-sampling study of mind wandering across controlled and ecological contexts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2009;16:857-863.
4. Kane MJ, Brown LH, McVay JC, Silvia PJ, Myin-Germeys I, Kwapil TR. For Whom the Mind Wanders, and When: An Experience-Sampling Study of Working Memory and Executive Control in Daily Life. Psychological Science. 2007;18:614-621.