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Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #1 – People learn best in 20 minute chunks



20 Minutes

I’m wrapping up my new book, 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People (It’s available for pre-order and will ship on May 17th), so I thought I’d take some ideas from the book for some blog posts. I’ve picked my 10 favorites (always hard for me to pick only 10 when I love all 100!), and will do a “Top 10” series here in the blog. This is the first post in the series.

When I am coaching and mentoring people on presentations I almost always recommend that they watch some TED talks. If you aren’t familiar with TED talks, go to and watch some. These are short talks by accomplished people in their fields. Most of these people don’t earn their living making presentations, but all of the presentations are very interesting. You can learn a lot about effective presentations watching TED talks.

Most TED talks are 20 minutes long —  I think that’s one reason why they are so effective. These same presentations stretched out to an hour might not be quite so brilliant.

20-minute presentations are an ideal amount of time —  Maureen Murphy tested this idea in an experiment. She had adults attending a 60 minute presentation at work, and tested to see the difference in memory and reaction to the same talk given in one 60 minute long presentation, versus a presentation that had 20 minute segments with short breaks in between. What Dr. Murphy found was that the people enjoyed the 20-minute chunked presentations more, learned more information immediately after, and retained more information a month later.

Plan your presentation in 20 minute chunks —  See if you can build in some kind of change every 20 minutes. For maximum learning you want a break every 20 minutes, as opposed to just a change of topic. The best ways to accomplish this are:

  • If you are presenting for more than one hour you probably have a break planned. Time the break so that it comes at one of these 20 minute time periods.
  • Instead of taking one long break, take several short ones. For example, it is common for a half-day workshop to go from 9 to 11:30 or 9 to 12 with one 20-30 minute break at around 10:30. Instead of one 30 minute break, have one 15 minute break and then 3 other short 5 minute breaks.
  • When I am presenting I sometimes introduce short “stretch” breaks. These are anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes in length. I just announce, “Let’s take a short 3 minute stretch break”. I time these to fall in the 20 minute intervals.
  • If you have activities, exercises, or interactions, plan them at 20 minute intervals. Although they are not true breaks, they allow people to assimilate the information just presented.

If you want to read the research:

Murphy, Maureen. 2012. Improving learner reaction, learning score, and knowledge retention through the chunking process in corporate training. Denton, Texas. UNT Digital Library.

And if you want to check out the book here’s a link to Amazon:


5 responses to “Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #1 – People learn best in 20 minute chunks”

  1. […] Luckily, there is research available to guide you away from inflicting undue agony on your audience. Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk is at work on a forthcoming book that explains the science of presenting and aims to help even novice presenters make their point without tormenting their audiences. The book, entitled 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, is due out in May, but Weinschenk is nowpreviewing some of the principles it contains on her blog. […]

  2. […] Susan Weinschenk, writer of the forthcoming book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, agrees. She […]

  3. chelsea Avatar

    Hi Susan,

    I do presentations all the time in my line of work (supply chain analyst). I definitely agree that many people do not have the attention span to listen to another person for a long period of time. In addition, information should be presented in a structured way and be as succinct as possible.

  4. Richard Avatar

    I don’t think that it is the chunking in 20 minute bits that enhances the learning but rather the 5 minute breaks which leave time to mentally process the freshly learned information. Actually the chunking group had a 70 minute learning period and the non-chunking group had only 60 minutes.
    I hypothesise that you could get the same results of a 60 minute lecture, when you use an appropriate speed of presentation meaning, leaving some time to mentally process the new information.

    A nice reading about the “myth” of the 10-15 minute attention span:
    Wilson, K., & Korn, J. H. (2007). Attention During Lectures: Beyond Ten Minutes. Teaching of Psychology, 34(2), 85–89. doi:10.1080/00986280701291291

  5. Dwana C Avatar

    I appreciate the insight. I am new to my role as a trainer on my current job. I am on actively looking for ways to be more effective and impactful to the students that are assigned to me. I have a lot experience but I have not been formally trained. Need all the help I can get.

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