65 Attention Factors and Supporting Material

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Explain why supporting materials are necessary.
  2. List the various types of verbal supporting materials.
  3. Discuss supporting material strengths in explaining and proving ideas and arguments.
  4. Incorporate supporting materials seamlessly into the speech.
  5. Use supporting materials ethically through correct citation.
  6. Explain how perception and attention affect the speech-giving process.

Attention Factors and Supporting Material

In Chapter 2, we discussed how public speaking as an oral form of communication is different from written forms of communication. Therefore, as a speaker, you must work to maintain the attention of your audience. In this section, we will look more deeply at attention and how you can use supporting materials to keep the audience’s attention in addition to the important functions of clarifying and proving ideas.

What is Attention?

Attention and perception are closely tied concepts, but they are not exactly the same. If you have taken an introduction to psychology course, one of the earliest chapters in the textbook was probably about perception, since our perceptual processes are so foundational to how we think and process. Perception deals primarily with how we organize and interpret the patterns of stimuli around us. The key words in this definition are patterns, organize, and interpret. The brain does the work of taking thousands of stimuli around us and making sense of them. Sensation is taking in the stimuli in the physical realm; perception is doing something with it psychologically. Perception is obviously influenced by memory, experiences, past learning, etc. If you taste a desert, the scent and taste are physically going to your brain, and thus you are sensing it. But if you say, “This tastes like my mother’s recipe for this desert,” then you are perceiving.

Attention, on the other hand, is focused perception. Attention is defined as focus on one stimulus while ignoring or suppressing reactions to other stimuli. It has been referred to as the “allocation of limited processing resources” (Anderson, 2005, p. 519). Although we think we can multitask and pay attention to three things at a time, we cannot.

The diagram in Figure 7.4 might help show why multitasking is a problem rather than a benefit. In the figure, two balls from the upper chutes (which represent the two sources of stimuli, such as two auditory messages) are trying to enter the central chute at the same time. For a practical example that you can probably relate to, let’s say these balls represent watching TV and playing a game on your phone at the same time. Only one ball can go through the single chute at a time, which is representative of your focus (the ideas or tasks you can actually think about at a given moment). The “balls” or stimuli must take turns, therefore making your attention shift back and forth, affecting your ability to do one task versus the other.

When you try to pay attention to two things at once, you are going to let the information in but have to switch back and forth on the pathways, making your attention (listening, reading, processing) less efficient. This means that in our example above, you’re either going to miss something that is being said on TV or you’re going to not play the game very well because you can’t divide your focus between the two activities. Multitudes of studies have been done on how inefficient multitasking behavior is, especially for students (Weimer, 2012).

When you pay attention, you focus and other stimuli become muted or nonexistent in your mind for that amount of time. We have all had experiences when we so focused on a stimulus—it could be a concert, a movie, a roller coaster ride—that we almost “wake up” to the rest of the world when it is over.

Why Do We Pay Attention?

Perception is not something we have a good deal of control over, but we do have more say in attention. There are basically five reasons we pay attention to what we do when confronted with lots of competing stimuli.

  1. choose to focus on one thing over another. Plain and simple, we grit our teeth and pay attention, such as when we are making ourselves study difficult material for a test. While this is a behavior we accept as adults, as public speakers we should not expect the audience to do all the work of paying attention just because they feel a duty to do so; they probably will not. We should attempt to meet the audience half way by using our understanding of attention. We should use various techniques in our speech to help the audience pay attention.
  2. Expectations. If a speaker started a lecture with “In this presentation I am going to say the word ‘serendipity,’ and when I do, the first person who jumps up and says ‘gotcha’ will get this $100 bill.” The audience is expecting to hear something and tuning in for it. Of course, this is an extreme example (and we don’t recommend it!) but when a speaker gives an introduction that sets up for the audience what to expect, attention can be helped.
  3. Need states. Have you ever noticed that the hamburgers on the fast food commercials look juicier and more delicious when you are hungry? When we are in a need state, we will be focused on those items that meet the need. When your instructor begins discussing in class what you can expect on the next exam, you probably perk up a bit, since this is information students generally need to know in order to do well in the class. Because that information meets a personal need, they will be more receptive to and focused on it.
  4. Past training and experiences. You will notice what you have been taught or trained, either directly or indirectly, to focus on. Sometimes you will not even be aware that you are doing so. For example, if you have a background in rodeo competition, you will see aspects and details in a rodeo scene in a movie that someone else would just take for granted.
  5. All of these reasons for paying attention are relevant to the public speaker, but the last one is most directly usable and related to supporting material. There are certain qualities or characteristics of stimuli that naturally attract our attention. These have been termed the “factors of attention.” If a public speaker puts these traits into the speech and presentation aids, the audience’s ability to pay attention will be bolstered. These characteristics, listed below, are generally ways to “perk up” you audience’s ears and gain their attention, at least temporarily. Our attention can wane rather quickly and a speaker must work to keep the audience engaged. Incorporating attention factors can help.

Attention Factors

The list of factors that can help you get or maintain attention during your speech is rather long, and a speaker cannot, of course, use all of them in one speech, but they are useful tools in certain speech situations. As you progress as a public speaker, you can use them in an “impromptu” fashion if you think the audience needs an attention boost.

The first factor in getting or maintaining attention is movement. A moving object will gain more attention than a stationary one. Movement is one of the factors of attention you can use in different ways. You can use stories that have movement in plot. You can use physical movement in your delivery. Transitions give a sense of movement to a speech, as well as not dwelling on one idea too long. The animation of words and graphics in PowerPoint or other slide presentation software is another use of animation.

At the same time, because animation attracts attention and therefore distracts attention too, it should be used strategically and intentionally (for a good purpose). For example, little animated figures, pacing back and forth, and repetitive gestures are uses of movement that you would not want to use because they are annoying, they are not purposeful, and they draw the audience’s attention away from your message.

The second factor of attention is conflict. Showing ideas, groups, teams, etc. that are in conflict draws attention. Stories can also utilize conflict.

The third factor of attention is novelty. Your ideas and the way you approach them should be fresh and new to the audience. When we get to persuasion in Chapter 13, we will also see that evidence used to persuade an audience should be new to them.

The fourth factor of attention is humor. Humor is usually not the focus of your speech, especially in a class situation, but well-placed and intentional humor can be helpful to maintain attention of your audience. It should be appropriate to the topic and well-practiced. It is probably a good idea to “road test” your humor to be sure it is funny to other people. We all have our own sense of what is funny and have experienced those times when friends or family don’t seem to “get” what we find funny. If you want to tell a joke, be sure to tell it, not read it, and practice the delivery well.

The fifth factor of attention is familiarity. As mentioned already, supporting materials should be immediately accessible and draw from your audience’s experience so they can understand quickly in an oral communication setting. Familiarity is attractive because it is comfortable. Familiarity may seem in conflict with novelty, and in a sense they show both sides of how our minds work. We like new things (such as the most recent design of a sports car) but we also like comfortable, familiar things (such as our favorite movie we have seen ten times already). They function differently in a speech. Familiarity works better to explain a new concept; novelty works better to pique an audience’s interest.

The sixth factor is contrast. This one is particularly useful to a speaker in creating visual aids so that key words stand out, for example, on presentation slides. Contrast also applies to the variety in your voice (avoiding what we would call monotone or monorate).

The seventh factor of attention is repetition. We have already seen how key repetitions at points in the speech can remind the audience of your structure and main ideas.

Suspense is the eighth factor of attention. Although not as useful in public speaking as some of the factors, suspense can be useful in an introduction. You can use a series of questions asking the audience to guess your topic; however, this is a risky approach if you disappoint your audience when the “real” topic is not what they are guessing. You can also tell a story in the introduction and say you will give the outcome of the story at the end of the speech, or pose a question and promise that by the end of the speech they will know the answer. However, always be sure to deliver on the promise!

The ninth factor is proximity, which refers to physical closeness. While not applicable to supporting materials, proximity does relate to public speaking delivery. The more physical distance between the audience members and the speaker and the audience, the harder it will be for the audience to remain attentive. If you know that only 20 people are going to attend a presentation, it is best to have it in a 20-seat room, not an auditorium that seats 100. The audience members will spread out and feel detached from each other, and it will be harder for you be or feel to close to them.

The tenth factor of attention is need-oriented subjects. We pay attention to what meets our needs. For example, when you are hungry, you probably notice fast food advertisements more on television (which advertisers recognize and use against us). If you are shopping for a car, you will be more aware of car advertisements.

The eleventh factor is intensity, which is also useful in the delivery aspect of public speaking. Raising your voice at key times and slowing down are useful for attention.

The last attention factor is concreteness, which in a sense describes all of them. All of the factors and types of supporting materials are tied to real or concrete experience. The more a speaker can attach the speech to real experience, either her own or preferably the audience’s, the more effective she will be.


It is hard to imagine an effective speech without a variety of supporting materials. Think of it like cooking a flavorful cuisine—there will be a mixture of spices and tastes, not just one. Statistics, narratives and examples, testimony, definitions, descriptions, and facts all clarify your concepts for the audience, and statistics, testimony, facts, and historical examples also support logical arguments. In the process of composing your speech, be sure to provide sources and use varied and interesting language to express the support your speech ideas require and deserve.

Something to Think About

One type of supporting material that is commonly used but was not fully discussed in this chapter is quotations such as “The only limits to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today” (Franklin D. Roosevelt). You can go to websites to find quotable quotes on various topics. What category (testimony, narratives, statistics, examples) would quotations such as this fall into? Would they be for proof or explanation? When would they be useful? What could be some downsides to using them? (Some of these answers are discussed in Chapter 8.)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Exploring Communication in the Real World Copyright © 2020 by Chris Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book