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Take account of people’s reticular activating system to liven your presentations

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Have you heard of a person’s reticular activating system? Their whaaat???

If you are presenting educational or informational material to an audience, you can use each person’s reticular activating system to improve retention of the material. The reticular activating system (RAS) is the part of a person’s brain that has the role of attention maker or attention breaker.

When a learning environment becomes routine, ie familiar and repetitive, the RAS takes on the role of attention breaker. It filters the incoming information, decides there is nothing significant to pay attention to, and allows the listener to switch off – to daydream, to think about unrelated things, or even (aagh!) to fall asleep.

When the environment changes from the familiar, the RAS becomes the attention maker. It directs the learner’s brain to consciously pay attention.

The RAS prevents a person from suffering information overload. It filters out the routine from your conscious mind. An example is your daily travel to work. You probably don’t even remember your trip to work yesterday because your RAS allowed your active mind to move to other things.

The RAS also works the other way. For instance, if you buy a certain make and model of car, in the early stages of ownership the RAS will direct you to notice every other car on the road that is the same make and model as yours. Also, the RAS acts to wake you in the middle of the night from a deep sleep to enable you to go to the bathroom.

The importance to presenters is clear. When you want learners to pay close attention to important information, you have to catch the attention of the RAS by changing something in the environment.

Firstly, you can change your teaching methods:

  • Vary the tone, speed or loudness of your voice.
  • Move around the room as you talk.
  • Gesture while you speak, using animated hand and arm movements or facial expressions.
  • Use a story to illustrate important concepts.
  • Ask a question and then pause for at least five seconds rather than for a shorter period.
  • Use humor or an anecdote.
  • Use topic-related visual aids as you talk, eg photographs, cartoons or charts.

You can change the activities you use to further involve the audience:

  • Get the audience to participate in short review activities.
  • Ask the participants to stand and stretch if they have been sitting for some time.
  • Request the attendees to walk outside with their audience neighbor to discuss what they have learned.
  • Throw a soft toy to different members of the audience, asking each of those persons to answer a simple question about the content of your talk.
  • Get them to draw simple diagrams on a whiteboard to represent what they have learned.
  • Ask them to discuss a question about the material you have delivered.
  • Set up a quick quiz game to cover what they have learned.

You can also change the physical environment of the venue:

  • Change the layout of chairs from theatre style to classroom style or to round tables.
  • Add aromas such as lavender, citrus or apple to create a different atmosphere.
  • Play background music that either energizes or relaxes your audience.
  • Provide snacks and confectionery for people who can answer simple quiz questions about the content of your talk.
  • Decorate the walls with charts, mobiles or streamers.
  • Create a colorful centerpiece for each table with colored paper, confectionery, soft toys etc.


  1. Sharon Bowman. The Ten-Minute Trainer, pp. 145-146.

About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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