There is considerable debate about attention spans and about the effects of the digital world and handheld devices. Interestingly enough, just a few decades ago, the debate focused on the effect that television was having on attention spans. Digital devices like smartphones and tablets are just the latest and greatest scapegoats. Whether they have or haven’t contributed to diminishing attention spans, it is certainly mind-boggling to realize that, with Twitter, full-bodied messages can be delivered in 140 characters or less.
The change in attention spans is often discussed in negative terms, as a deterioration in our ability to focus. But I think we have to ask ourselves, is this really a bad thing? I prefer to look at the phenomenon as a market disruption or correction that is forcing communications to adopt the often-touted corporate principles of leanness and efficiency. As companies try to increase engagement and productivity, improving communication—by cutting out waste—could be quite effective. Being brief and to the point may require a little extra effort, but it can accomplish a lot and save precious time.
Many studies have now measured adult attention spans—where they are and how they’ve changed over the years. There are reports suggesting that in just the last decade, the average adult attention span has shrunk from highs of twelve to eighteen minutes and to lows of three to five minutes, depending on the study’s focus and the environments of the participants. Some studies look at how long people can concentrate on a task; others look at their attentiveness while listening. Yet how long people can pay attention to a speaker depends on tremendous variables that can make it hard to measure: the comfort and conduciveness of the environment, the speaker’s voice quality and modulation, the actual content, whether there are effective visuals or good stories, what the objective is for the audience, and whether they understand that objective. The ability to focus is, after all, crucial to the achievement of an objective, so audience motivation levels can vary as well.
Holding the attention of an adult audience requires a tremendous amount of multitasking and careful advance planning. In other words, brevity—or perhaps we should call it efficiency and expediency—in communication takes discipline and planning. As the speaker, it’s up to you to do the hard work of organizing your thoughts and packaging your content for your audience, because their attention spans are what they are and they’re not growing!
(Excerpted in part from Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World)