You Could Be Completely Wrong About Your Attendees’ Attention Spans

Author: David McMillin       

Content is king, but content must be short — that’s the principle that most businesses live by in the digital age. It makes sense, too, based on a frequently cited study conducted by Microsoft that revealed the average human’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s ability to focus. If human beings can only concentrate for eight seconds, organizations across all industries have adopted a shorter-is-better approach to, well, everything. Including media. As I write this article, I’m checking my word count to make sure that I keep your attention.

But in an educational session at PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2018, Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, took a contrarian view to that widely accepted notion. “Are our attention spans shrinking?” Thompson asked. “I’m going to take the optimistic perspective and say no.”

As evidence, Thompson pointed to “all forms of media,” which, he said, “are getting more and more complex.” He used the wildly popular television series “Game of Thrones” as an example, comparing it to “M*A*S*H,” the TV comedy series that aired from 1972–1983.

Thompson make a wise point. The success of “Game of Thrones” revolves around many characters with four-syllable names, mythical creatures, and a plot line so dense that viewers must read recaps to understand the meaning behind scenes. Its episodes are occasionally 75 minutes long. That’s not an easy show for someone with an eight-second attention span to follow, and yet, it has a huge following and wins award after award. “M*A*S*H*” was a well-regarded and critically successful series for its time, but its episodes didn’t inspire debate and high-level discussion.

Thompson’s efforts to debunk the attention-span myth weren’t confined to the screen. For example, he highlighted the explosive growth of podcasts, which often stretch into 60-minute listening sessions. Long-form journalism is also thriving. Before Thompson started at WIRED, he worked at The New Yorker where the most-read online article was a 27,000-word feature on scientology. Take that, Buzzfeed. It seems that “Your Stance on 15 Cheesy Foods Will Reveal Your Cheesiest Quality” might not be the key to capturing eyeballs.

Thompson conceded that our attention spans are shrinking in some ways, “but in other ways,” he said, “they are massively expanding.”

For event organizers, this is important to recognize. In the age of bullet-point blog posts and bite-sized educational sessions, there is still space for content and programming that requires readers and attendees spend more time and effort to really think. It just has to engage them and be worth it, even if no dragons are involved.

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