Hellman: Getting And Keeping Their Attention

“Your attention span is about 10 minutes.” That’s according to my son, who’s teaching kindergarten this summer.

I tell him 10 minutes only applies to 5 year olds.

For adults, it’s shorter.

Well, not really. The research says we spend about 11 minutes on a task before getting interrupted.

Fingers typing on a keyboard, close-up.
Fingers typing on a keyboard, close-up.

And if we don’t get interrupted, we self-interrupt. We check email, twitter, or walk down the hall and interrupt someone else. (“No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” by Mark, Gonzalez, and Harris.)

11 minutes is about the time between commercials on most TV shows. TV may explain where our attention problems began, but now our attention is under attack from faster media.

“Web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds – the same as a goldfish.” (BBC News, 2/22/02).

So let’s assume you’re working – and talking - with people whose attention span is completely shot. What to do?

Use variety.

One day, I was presenting a workshop when, suddenly, a stranger walked in, unfolded a ladder, and climbed to the ceiling. He wasn’t trying to amuse us; he needed to fix a light.

Still, we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He was like a circus act.

What made him so compelling? Variety – he broke the routine of the workshop. Sure, we’d seen people fix lights before, but not that day. Plus he had a ladder. Never under-estimate the power of a good prop.

But then, after a few minutes, he was still doing the same thing and we lost interest.

In retrospect, he should have ditched the ladder, and performed his feat atop a team of acrobats, or a herd of wild elephants. I think we might have given him 11 minutes.

Tip: Capture attention with variety. If you’re talking, vary your style, vary your body language, ask some questions - and stop talking. Otherwise your audience will climb the wall, with or without a ladder.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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