14 May 2009

The Zen of Presentations, Part 26: Attention span

An idea that is batted around quite frequently about presentations now is that people can only pay attention for a few minutes. This has probably been at least part of the incentive for creating short presentation formats like Pecha Kucha (6 minutes, 40 seconds) and Ignite (5 minutes flat).

For example, click here and then click on, “Audience Attention Span” and you will see a very scientific looking graph. Colour me skeptical. How was that determined? Where are the error bars? Is it based on real data at all?

(It is the case that people remember the opening and closing parts of sequences better than the middle, but that’s not necessarily a problem of attention.)

I’ve seen claims that people’s attention span is limited to 9 minutes, 7 minutes, or 18 minutes. And then, it is said, people will invariably drift away. In teaching, I’ve seen some people arguing that lectures need to be broken up into small, “attention sized” bits.

Yet the strange thing is... we routinely see people paying attention to something for hours at a time. Think of movies. Movies often have many characters and complex narratives that do require attention. Filmmakers don’t always get it right – people can sometimes lose the plot – but If we were really so limited in our ability to pay attention, movies wouldn’t be two hours long.

Now, I am not saying that every presenter makes it easy for the audience to keep paying attention. Things that cause the audience to stop paying attention are not hard to detect: speaking inaudibly or in a monotone speaking, overly complex visuals, using jargon, and so on.

The directive for presenters should not be, “Make every presentation short.” The directive for presenters should be, “Don't be boring.”

3 comments:

A simple question... said...

I think it also has to do with the fact that making movies is essentially story-telling and we love stories. I think if a presentation utlilized the facts and figures as a part of a story, it would hold the attention of people in the audience. I remember having a history teacher once who would call his history class story-telling period because he viewed history as a great story and thought it should told with great drama and vigor. Nobody ever called that class boring.

Matthew Foster said...

Priceless advice in 3 words, "Don't be boring."

Alice Schaffer said...

I think many scientists don't know how to "not be boring." Most just lack communication skills. I believe it's because their thinking is non-linear. It's like the show LOST...too many flashbacks and confusing time-travels. Scientists need to tell a nice sequential story, concisely.