Act Quickly. Attention Spans are Shrinking.

A goldfish jumping from an empty bowl of water to another with other goldfish

I recently came across some research on attention spans that shocked me. It essentially says that most of the people in your audience—whether that’s the audience for a keynote, a presentation, a sales pitch, or a meeting—have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Goldfish!

Microsoft conducted a research study in 2015 that found the attention span of the average North American has shrunk to eight seconds. That’s down from 12 seconds at the turn of the century. Down from 15 seconds late in the 21st century.

Goldfish, on the other hand, continue to hold steady at a nine second attention span. The implication is that unless you present to goldfish you probably have to grab your audience’s attention quickly and find ways to grab it again and again as your talk, presentation, meeting continues.

That doesn’t mean you need an endless fireworks show. What it means is you have to keep mixing things up. Change your pace. Change what they’re looking at. Change your intonations. Change.

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Goldfish and your parent’s generation didn’t grow up with Twitter, texting, Facebook, smart phones, and constant interaction from dozens of different angles along with an endless deluge of new apps that promise to make everything easier.

If you don’t believe that people’s attention spans have shrunk to a scrawny eight seconds, notice the eyes of the people you interact with. Notice how often people move their eyes. Then notice how rarely they hold eye contact, unbroken, for eight seconds or longer. Almost never! The eyes of the people we communicate are often in perpetual motion out of habit. You can blame social media, technology, and the expanding world of entertainment if you want. Sure, they all play a role. But the bottom line remind the same: a smaller attention span for the people we want to and need to communicate with.

Look at young couples—and some not so young couples—on a date. They’ll sit at a table at a bar or restaurant and both be on their phones, surfing, texting, or tweeting. You’ll see that more often than you’ll see two people staring into each others eyes for longer than eight seconds.

Watch a network TV news program. Soundbites, the edited portion of an interview, run in the neighborhood of, you guessed it, eight seconds.

It’s the new reality, the reality of eyes in perpetual motion, searching for new stimulation, new gratification. So as the speaker, presenter, or meeting leader you have a few options: Mix things up and provide some change—visual, auditory, or sensory—or start talking to goldfish.

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