The attention span of today's audiences is more limited than ever. Channel surfing is a cliche by now, and most of us have seen audience members leave seminars early. Studies show people are too impatient to read a long block of text on a web page. "We had people say, 'I don't want to read that long, long text online. Give it to me fast,'said Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, which serves Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, among others.
Besides society's faster pace and ever-expanding media choices, research at the US National Institute of Mental Health found that "extensive exposure to TV and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention."
The result is a "sound bite
world in which messages must be rapid and in stimulating succession - or most of the audience loses interest. Across the globe business leaders, academics, and others, fond of the traditionally thorough, detailed coverage of a topic, scorn this modern wave of communicating.
"At a minimum, we hope the candidates will focus on substance rather than sound bites,
editorialized Canada's Hamilton Spectator in a common lament before an upcoming election.
This is a legitimate point. However, we must also realize that people won't get substance from material they lose interest in - no matter how profound the information. Society is changing. Unless we adjust the way we communicate, we risk losing effectiveness. The International Listening Association found that immediately after hearing someone talk, people usually recall only about half of what they've heard. Our challenge is to say it in 50 words instead of 100, and keep it stimulating throughout.
As we pitch the media, deliver speeches, make presentations, and write press releases, reports and articles, there are some strategies we can use to be successful communicators in the 21st century sound-bite world.
First, engage your audience on different levels. Human beings operate on at least three: intellectual, emotional, and sensory.
The intellectual level is where people process information they receive, so it's a critical level to tap. If we don't, a typical brain will wander.
It is vital to be logically organized: get to the point fast, support it with lively facts, and then immediately transition into the next point.
Along the way there are many legitimate tricks we can use to keep brains stimulated. For instance, many people find questions and mysteries irresistible.
Outlandish statements are also attention-grabbers, and while they often seem like contradictions, they can illuminate our subjects once additional key information is given. And analogies and metaphors are colorful devices that make dry or complex points more interesting and understandable by drawing comparisons between two dissimilar objects or concepts.
Next is the emotional level. Emotions are more patient than brains. Audiences will stick with a lengthy point for longer if their emotions are engaged.
Telling stories often works well because there is an expectation of an emotional payoff at the end. Even brief anecdotes and word pictures can engage emotions. Of course, stories are more valuable if they relate to our subject.
Interactive participation also works because encouraging people to briefly share their frustrations, triumphs, concerns, and dreams gets everyone's blood flowing and can be a powerful part of a presentation. (But it does take considerable skill to manage lest it get out of hand.)
And lastly on this level, humor may be the most effective tool. However, even it can be overdone. One speaker focused so much on being entertaining - his message was an almost non-stop flurry of jokes and anecdotes - that by the end, the audience had learned little about an otherwise important subject.
Finally, there is the sensory level. Since we don't normally touch our audiences physically, the next best thing is to engage the senses available to us.
Speakers should make eye contact - though this has limits since we can't maintain constant eye contact with everyone. However, we can use visuals such as graphs, charts, photos, artwork, maps, and models to get across our message. We can engage the ears of our audience by including music or auditory effects at critical points in our presentations. When adding music to our presentations is not practical, we can vary the tone of our voices and the rhythm of our speech. And if people are asked to do something, such as sketch on paper or exchange seats, their focus is forced to be on your presentation - and as a bonus they're able to learn through an experience.
Ultimately, we must rein in our egos and focus on why we write articles or make presentations in the first place: to meet the informational needs of an audience. When we place our audience's needs first, we acknowledge people are busy, in search of quick information, and not all that interested in minute details.
We can write to be published or we can write to be read. We can speak to be heard or we can speak to be listened to. Future audiences are counting on us.