The goldfish comparison comes from a recent study. Microsoft wanted to learn the impact of digital technology on attention spans. It collected data from more than 2,000 Canadians, all 18 or older. It had the subjects play repetitive games—responding to patterns, spotting the differences in pictures, and classifying letters and numbers—to learn how long they could stay focused on task. It also examined 112 other subjects very closely, measuring the electrical activity of their brains as they interacted with various media while trying to perform other activities.
The outcome? Yeah, it’s apparently harder for us to stay focused now. Back in 2000 we were good for 12 seconds of focus. Now we’re only good for 8. Goldfish are still good for 9. Could be worse; fruit flies are said to have an attention span of less than a second.
But wait a minute—there’s more than one form of attention span!
- There’s transient attention, the attention span that applies when we’re uninterested and doing something we feel is unimportant. We’re easily distracted then.
- Then there’s sustained selective attention, which most adults can manage for 5 to 20 minutes, and which applies to things we’re interested in or believe are important. That hasn’t changed. If you can present something that interests your audience, you’re probably good for at least 10 minute’s worth of their attention before they break off and you must get them to refocus on you.
- And finally, there’s alternating attention, which has to do with shifting from one task to another and back again. That’s actually improved. So if we’re worse at focusing on a single, boring task, we’re also better at multi-tasking.
Now, here’s how this applies when you’re presenting: no one is going to be focused on you all the time. It’s not natural. What is natural is for your audience to refocus on you when you send up a signal.
So when you’re about to make a major point, put suspense in your voice. Make it sound as though you’re about to reveal a secret.
Or step away from the podium. Approach the audience. Remove your glasses, if you wear them. Pause. You’ll find they’re all looking at you.
Or make your point and then wait several beats. That signals you’ve just said something important.
Or just repeat yourself. Make your point, pause, and make it again. Or keep coming back to it, like a refrain in a song.
Learn how to emphasize the right things and it won’t matter if your audience has the transient attention span of a fruitfly.