Attention Span

Maximising Attention Span With A Kitchen Timer Approach

4 Min Read · Sep 6, 2016 · by Henry Low


What is the optimal attention span that your interested audience is willing to listen to you?

How long does it take to lose your audience attention before they start tuning out?

According to cognitive scientists, the range of 10 to 18 minutes is the maximum attention span.

As your brain absorbs new information, it consumes a huge amount of glucose, oxygen and blood, with millions of neurons firing and burning energy, eventually leading to fatigue and exhaustion after the 18th minute mark.

No wonder, the world-famous TED presentations is 18 minutes long. TED organizers has reached a conclusion that 18 minute is an ideal amount of time for a perfect presentation pitch.

This 18-minute rule has also reminded me of risotto cooking, a famous Italian rice dish cooked in a broth to a creamy consistency.

I have learnt from American Celebrity Chef, Emeril Bagasse, that the biggest tip for making a perfect risotto is to only cook it for 18 minutes.

Nothing more than that.


How Can We Apply To Presentation Design?

The idea is simple.

You should start planning your presentation into 18-minute chunks and make your 30-minute presentation into three phases:

1) Introduce yourself: 2 – 3 minutes.

2) Present your main idea or message: < 18 minutes.

3) Giving your audience a chance to ask questions: 5 minutes.

Remember this: It is always a good practice to spare minutes of free time just in case you need it for interruptions and delays.
And, if you are presenting for longer than 30 minutes, such as a 3-hour training workshop or a whole day tutorial lesson, you need to have a break plan and time the break on or before the 18-minute mark.

Just like cooking the risotto, you will need a kitchen timer to assist in the perfect timing of cooking this amazing dish.

Attention Span
This is to ensure perfect consistency with the rice slightly al dente on the inside and super creamy on the outside.

Similarly, you can use the kitchen timer approach to ensure that you keep your interested audience wide-awake by not crossing the optimal 18-minute attention span.

Use this kitchen timer approach in your next presentation and see how your audience give you their 100% focused attention span to the max.


The 2 Step “Kitchen Timer Approach”
For A Perfect Presentation Pitch

Incorporating the 18-minute rule into your presentation would require two simple steps:

Step 1: Plan your speech.

Step 2: Use a timer.

Let me jump right in…


Step 1: Plan your speech

The first step is to determine the number of words for your 18-minute presentation speech.

If you are speaking at an average pace of 150 words per minute (WPM), an 18-minute presentation would translate to about 2,340 words.

There is no hard and fast rule here.

The actual number of minutes you will take is also dependent on your speed of speaking.

For example, in a 18-minute TED talk, presentation expert Nancy Duarte shares practical lessons on how to make a powerful call-to-action during presentation using 3,884 words.

That’s about 216 words per minute. She is a fast speaker.

Steve Jobs gave one of the most popular commencement address of our time at Stanford University and he did it in 15 minutes, using 2,270 words.

That’s about 151 words per minute. The pace of his speech is comfortable.

The table below provides an indication of the number for words based on the presentation time.

Time Avg 
(150 WPM)
(100 WPM)
(220 WPM)
2 mins 300 words  200 words  440 words
3 mins 450 words  300 words  660 words
4 mins 500 words 400 words  880 words
5 mins 750 words  500 words 1,100 words
6 mins 900 words  600 words  1,320 words
8 mins 1,200 words  800 words  1,760 words
10 mins 1,500 words  1,000 words  2,200 words
12 mins 1,800 words  1,200 words  2,640 words
14 mins 2,100 words  1,400 words  3,080 words
15 mins 2,250 words  1,500 words  3,300 words
16 mins 2,400 words  1,600 words  3,520 words
18 mins 2,700 words  1,800 words 3,960 words
As a rule of thumb, I will use the average speaking speed of 150 to 160 words per minute to craft the presentation speech and use a kitchen timer to pace the live presentation.

This brings us to the step 2.


Step 2: Use a kitchen timer

Interruptions and delays can happen during your presentation.

For example, you might start a couple of minutes late waiting for your audience or you might take longer to emphasize a certain point.

And, you can’t manage time unless you can see the time. The presentation venue might not have a clock and looking at your watch during your presentation can be distracting.

That’s why a kitchen timer comes into play.

Here is what I do for timekeeping.

Over at Microsoft PowerPoint/Apple Keynote, you can set it to show the presenter’s view and display the timer, during your presentation.

Attention Span

Presenter View in PowerPoint

And separately, I use the Logitech R800 Professional Presenter Remote that comes with an integrated countdown timer that will buzz at 17th minute mark to prompt me that I have 1 minute left.

Are You Ready to Give It a Shot?

I hope I have helped you ease your worry on how long your presentation should be.

And, stop worrying about how many words should your presentation speech be.

Start incorporating breaks right around the 18-minute mark.

You can introduce a short exercise, an activity that engages the audience, or simply changing the way you present the information with a short video or getting your audience to participate that helps to illustrate your message.

Ready to try it out?

Leave a quick comment below to let me know how this approach has helped you.