How Often Should You Give Your Audience A Break?

Yesterday, I wrote about a six-hour seminar I attended earlier this month with well-known public speaker and visual display expert Edward Tufte.

Dr. Tufte clearly put a lot of thought and energy into his presentation, and I learned several things from him. But his presentation was far from perfect. One major problem? His failure to give adequate breaks and space them appropriately.

First, for context, his one-day seminar costs attendees $380 (roughly 300 people attended). I gladly paid that for the opportunity to learn from him, but I expect some things in return. One of them is that he remembers that people need to use a restroom occasionally. Another is that he remembers that many people like to eat before the mid-afternoon.

The session was scheduled from 10am to 4pm. Upon arriving, I learned that the lunch break would begin at 1:15pm—later than I prefer to eat. (Had the advanced materials mentioned the late lunch time, I would known to bring something to eat.) Worse, he broke for lunch even later than advertised, at 1:35pm.

By the time we waited in long lines at nearby restaurants, lunch wasn’t served until after 2pm. I suspect that’s too late for many people.

The morning session had another problem. He started the session at 10am and didn’t call for his first break until 12:45pm–almost three hours later! I could have left the session to have gone to the bathroom, of course, although I would have missed at least five minutes of the lecture due to the far-away location of the facilities. So now I was faced with a choice: use the bathroom but miss the content I paid to learn, or stay in the session but be increasingly distracted by my biological needs.

As speakers, we must be sensitive to an audience’s biological needs and attention spans—if we want them to be able to focus on and retain our material.

Based on her review of recent research, Susan Weinschenk, a Ph.D. psychologist and author of 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, recommends giving audiences a break for at least five minutes every hour to maximize their attention spans and ability to absorb information. 

In my experience, depending on the circumstance, a speaker might be able to push that a little longer. For example, if we’re videotaping a trainee, offering feedback, and watching a few sample videos, 90 minutes can fly by.

But after training hundreds of groups over the past decade, I’ve reliably observed that a few audience members begin excusing themselves to use the bathroom somewhere between the 60- to 75-minute mark. Therefore, as a general rule, I’d rarely recommend going longer than 75 minutes before offering your audience a break, even if it’s just for a quick five or ten minute “bio” break. That critical break gives people a few minutes to rest their minds, absorb what you’ve said, and refocus when the presentation resumes.

What do you think? What’s the longest you like to sit in an audience without being able to take a break? And by what time do you want the speaker to break for lunch? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Edward Tufte photo credit: Aaron Fulkerson