As a presentation skills speaker and trainer I tend to read a lot about the subject of attention spans and how to keep an audience engaged.
A years or two ago I started seeing articles that scientists had conclusively proved that the average human attention span was now shorter than that of a goldfish. Humans’ attention spans had supposedly dropped from what was previously 12 seconds in 2002 to only eight seconds in 2017, one second shorter than a goldfish! I am sure that many of you have seen or heard those stats too (if you were concentrating long enough).
The studies argued that our ability to focus on a task had been diminished by our digital interactions – internet, social media, click-bait articles, You-Tube videos etc.
The subtext for presentations seemed to be “Hey presenters – don’t expect your audience to be too attentive, because every 9-10 seconds or so, their brains will be diverted, interrupted, corrupted or seduced to think of something more interesting and engaging than your presentation”.
While there’s no doubt that we have more distractions now than ever and that messages are flying our way from all directions – and the ability to hop onto our mobiles mid-conference has changed the game a bit, I couldn’t help thinking – this research can’t be true!
I’m no scientist but I could not help wondering how tricky it would be to determine if a goldfish is concentrating on anything for any length of time. A few years ago my son had a goldfish tank in his room, and from what I saw, none of the fish ever seemed to be focused on anything. The fish have all since gone to the great porcelain bowl in the sky, but the skeptic in me could not fathom scientists being able to determine the concentration span of a mindless fish.
And my countless hours sitting in conference rooms has led me to a very differentconclusion. Audiences can concentrate for a long, long time if the presenter is good. If the presenter is boring, yes, perhaps the goldfish in us kicks in and we jump onto our phones to kill time. My non-scientific, entirely anecdotal findings (sitting in hundreds of conference rooms for hundreds of hours, observing thousands of presenters and audiences) suggest that if you’re dull, people lose focus. If you’re engaging, dynamic and interesting, with some clear and concise messages, simple visuals and a few relevant stories, an audience will pay attention for a long time.
And while the goldfish theory is still often used to diss Gen Z and many Millennials (“they’re always on their phones, not focused, they all have ADD” etc etc) I’m still not convinced they have a major (or increasing) problem with concentration either.
I don’t see teenagers wandering out of the latest Marvel superhero movie midway saying ‘I’m bored”. And millions of children seem capable of playing Fortnite for fortnights at a time without losing focus, if left to their own devices (pun intended). My teenage kids and their friends are quite capable of binge-watching a great Netflix series for hours on end, without losing attention. And in my experience a really awesome, inspiring, switched-on school-teacher can keep most kids occupied for a 40 minute class.
Why? Because those things are usually engaging and interesting (and fun), with content targeted for the audience – sometimes to an intoxicating, binge-inducing extent.
Bottom line (and yes, I know I’m being simplistic) if you are interesting, we will pay attention. If not, you will unleash our inner goldfish.
And while people still throw those fishy stats around (I hear them espoused on conference stages all the time), the scientific findings about dwindling attention spans and goldfish were later totally debunked. Turns out, our attention spans aren’t shrinking (we can just multi-task a little better) and it’s not actually possible to compare a goldfish and human attention spans. So, the whole goldfish attention / concentration thing – its a myth.
And if you’re still reading this article, maybe I’ve proved my point.
Andrew Klein is a professional speaker (on Presentation Skills and Pitching Skills) and a conference MC. He owned many goldfish as a child and his children also owned goldfish. None of the fish lasted very long, despite his ability to feed them, clean their bowls and provide endless expensive filtering contraptions. However, they did live long enough for him to realise they didn’t concentrate for long.