The myth of the short attention span. I think it started sometime around when newspapers got invented in the 1600’s and 1700’s. “Look at that tiny article!” the old codgers of the time probably shouted. “How can anyone learn anything in such a small amount of time! This generation will be the end of human civilization.”
People have no attention span. We’ve been told it so much, we believe it, and even might behave to make it a reality when we know it can get us off the hook. But is the issue really our attention span? No.
When people actually care about something, the amount of time and focus they dedicate is deep. Whether it’s our families, our favorite television shows, our passion projects, or the tasks we complete to succeed professionally, we can and do pay attention to stuff. So what gives?
I don’t think the issue is with our attention span, but with our engagement span. It’s true we pay attention to things that matter, but for something to register as important from Outside Influences it has to get past a lot of barriers of judgment and bias to have an effect. This is the struggle of marketing, or of arguing with someone in general. You may catch someone’s attention, but keeping it? That’s a different question, and it’s not much to do with their ability to focus.
There are three ways that believing this myth about your audience actually stops you from being able to reach them. Let’s talk about these errors, and what you could try differently to respect your audience’s need for engagement. Time to stop blaming the short attention span!
Error One: Over-Distilling Content
The first mistake that can arise from buying this myth is making content too simple. If you think people can’t pay attention, you might remove key concepts or leave out information you think is “too complicated” or “too boring.” At the same time, it’s not a precise science to know exactly what information an audience wants, so some items must be left out as part of the marketing and sales process. Leaving out pricing, information about project structures or timelines, or specific details about features and services can generate interest.
To get better at writing engaging content that tells readers what they need to stay interested, practice paraphrasing. The way I would do this at first is actually out loud, because it’s way more natural. Choose a short story or article that is longer than three pages and give it a read. Then, summarize the article to someone else, but in a way like you would tell it as a story at a party. If you want to take it one extra step, then ask your audience to read the piece and discuss what you may have left out and why.
When you practice telling the story like it is exciting (even if you read a technical industry piece) it will be different than if you were just reciting it to a teacher. Pay attention to how you speak differently while you are summarizing to make someone interested. Then, try to bring that language to your writing.
Error Two: Permitting Yourself Churn
The second error is an issue of self-perspective. We make the mistake of allowing our content to not perform. We tell ourselves that when people don’t stay engaged with our content, it is because of forces greater than ourselves. This may be true in some cases, but in others it’s an issue of misapplied storytelling that is speaking to the wrong values and pain points.
Especially in cases when a piece of content is complex, like an infographic, video, or eBook, the reasons for the failure may be over-simplified to “the piece was too much for the audience, people don’t want to pay attention” when the real issue was the content.
Recognizing this error might mean taking a hard look at past projects. To avoid this blind spot compromising the quality of future content, do some research about your audience. What problems are they trying to solve? What stops them from solving those problems? How do they talk about those problems, and how might they have been burned by solutions in the past? These questions are just some that should inform your brand positioning.
When I say “research” I mean talking to people that meet your target demographics in-person, and maybe reading message boards. Until you engage with your audience first, you can’t expect to just catch and keep their attention on your terms.
Error Three: Absence of Content Storytelling
A third common misstep that arises from buying into the myth of the short attention span is letting each piece of your content exist in a vacuum. Because you believe the audience can’t pay attention, you don’t give them a story to follow. But brand narrative and identity are essential to build loyalty and trust in today’s customers. If you aren’t trusting your audience enough, they aren’t engaging with your brand because you don’t offer anything consistent.
Think about the recent boom in streaming television. I never watched Game of Thrones, but I noticed it existed and certainly kept people’s attention. This was through the power of storytelling to build interest and engagement over time. Your brand can do the same thing, if you trust your audiences enough to follow along.