The Phenomenon of Attention

We no longer have four-year-olds in the house, so the most profound and egregious examples of limited attention span no longer occur on an hourly basis here. That said, I have spent the past three months examining and being fascinated by the impact that attention span has on our society and on the profession of presentation.

I started with our remote control. We were early adopters of digital video recording, having purchased one of the first 100 TiVo units ever made. (We still own it, and I just sold a car I kept for 19 years, but that’s another column about a different dysfunction.) Creating a better interface for television viewing is an artform and avoiding commercials a privilege.

This is why we hold in such low regard our current cable television provider. Comcast’s OnDemand offering is fine for being able to watch shows when we want, but everything else about it is horrible. There is only one speed of forward and rewind, the menu is completely linear with many layers of depth, and worst of all, shows from many major networks now stream with the fast-forward control disabled.

I was full of praise for companies that created commercials with DVR watchers in mind. Knowing that we would zip through them, they created lots of still images and persistent branding. I remember one Nike commercial that was nothing more than slow-moving montages of athletes and the swoosh. Even at 3x speed, you could glean the meaning.

But without any fast-forward controls, I get so angry at the constraints placed upon me, I now use the five-minute jump button and then rewind back to leapfrog over the entire commercial block. Take that, you miserable Comcast/ABC/NBC conspiracy!

Am I ingenuous for having outsmarted my cable provider or am I just pathetic? What does it say about me and my attention span that I cannot sit through a few lousy commercials? What does it say about you that you could probably relate to all of my television angst?

Let’s allow ourselves a few moments to commiserate, but then let’s acknowledge that we humans don’t want to be forced to do things. We don’t want to be told what we can or cannot watch, what is or is not important, and what we should or should not pay attention to.

We’re not terrible because of this; we’re just human. So why are you reading about this on a website devoted to presentation? Because understanding attention is key to crafting and delivering successful presentations. It plays out on levels that have profound implications for presentation designers, slide makers, and speakers.

At the design level, the attention span of your audience members could be the most important determinant of how you tell your story. If you have 15 minutes to make a pitch for a round of venture capital, you would be well advised to avoid the slides in your deck entitled “Mission Statement,” “About Us,” and “Our Unique Expertise.”

At the speaking level, busy executives will give up on you if you indulge in framing and context, however good your intentions are. Time is the most important resource to most decision-makers; understand that and you’re off to a better start than most.

One of my favorite quotes relating to this is from Mark Twain (of the hundreds of quotes attributed to him, this one really does belong to him): “If you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready now. If you want me to speak for 10 minutes, I’ll need two weeks in order to prepare.”

The creation level is where the most fascinating dynamic in all of this plays out, as PowerPoint, Keynote, and Prezi users struggle with the most effective use of motion and animation. While usually with the best of intentions, content creators often misfire when considering the use of motion. They know about the limited attention spans of audiences and often believe that a bit of flash and sizzle is just what is needed to keep them interested.

It’s actually the opposite, because remember, people don’t like being told what to do, what to pay attention to, and where to look. Abuse of animation is the poster child for these problems.

I regularly demonstrate this in my workshops by standing off to one side of the room while telling people that I have complete control over their attention. I then make a rocket ship fly across the slide and watch as every single head turns to the screen. I call it my Universal Axiom No. 1 of PowerPoint: when stuff moves on screen, audience members have no choice but to look.

Your success with motion and zoom rests almost entirely with your understanding this powerful dynamic. Your audience is completely at your mercy when you use tools of motion so it is up to you to use them wisely and appropriately. If you abuse this privilege, you risk creating deep resentment. If you employ it properly, you create the promise of trust, and trust might be the most powerful of all emotions that you could ever hope to evoke in your audience members.

It’s a bit ironic that, with respect to presentation experiences, PowerPoint’s Animation tool can be responsible for the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs. And so much of it traces back to your understanding of attention and audience members’ willingness to entrust you with theirs.

Now what did I do with my remote? Time’s a wasting and there’s a Breaking Bad marathon starting…

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