UNDERSTANDING THE LIMITS OF ATTENTION

Listening or paying attention to something attentively for an extended period of time,  is a challenge for most human beings.

In my experience, how much we humans will listen to anything, pay attention to anything, or stick with something we were reading primarily depends on two things: our interest in the subject matter itself and the time it takes the speaker or author to get to the point.  I have asked many people to estimate how long it takes them before their mind starts to wander if confronted with a form of communication that does not grab their keen attention almost at once.  The answers have varied but three minutes seems about the outer limits.

While these facts may describe most of us as poor listeners, they also support what my workshop colleague Jack calls an economy of attention common to most humans that speakers and authors ignore at their own risk.  When a member of my doctoral dissertation committee informed me that my dissertation was too long and wordy by one-third, I was insulted.  He was, in fact, being kind.  When my first written professional product came back full of red marks and deletions, my feelings were again bruised.  But two such assaults on one’s ego are usually sufficient to get one thinking about the need for some change.  They were for me.

In their fascinating book “Made to Stick”, authors Chip and Dan Heath explore what it is that makes certain ideas stick with us while others fade like a fog.  Although their book was written primarily with advertising in mind, many of their insights are spot on for communication in general.  Consider the following Heath brother insights when confronting the short attention span so common to many of us.

Ideas that grab attention and stick, they write, are among other things generally:

Simple — that is, they express “the core of the idea” and are compact and short in their expression.

Concrete — these are ideas that express or conjure up images of  tangible, specific realities.  We can see, touch, hear and experience them directly.  Abstract ideas only make it harder for us to comprehend their meaning.

Credible — that is, that we as the source of the idea possess a credibility that makes us believable.  We have what the Heath’s call testable credentials to back up the validity of what we say.

Emotional — these are ideas that have the power to make others “care about them”.  Emotional ideas draw upon the emotions and self-interest of others.  Emotional ideas make clear why they matter to the listener or reader.

If you can couple these four qualities of your ideas with brevity and succinctness of expression, you are well on your way to counteracting the short attention span so many of us share in common.  This is why high quality newspapers take such pains to capture the essence of a story in their headlines.  Or you might peruse a few of the leading news periodicals and note the brief essence-summaries up front that often precede the more detailed articles covered later.  They know many readers will go no further than the summaries themselves.

Effective communication is an art not a science.  Those that are the best communicators work hard at it all their lives.  There are rules and best practices to guide them but nothing beats practice and preparation.  The more important the communication, the more carefully they prepare.

Finally, the best communicators never forget that they have a limited span of time to capture the listener’s or reader’s attention or the importance of their message can dissipate like a fog; a victim of our economy of attention.

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