Attention, says Chris Hayes, the moderator of MSNBC’s “All In” program, is the scarcest commodity of the 21st century.
True. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes eloquently about the differences between deep attention and hyper-attention. Hyper-attention is a fractured attention in which we rapidly zip from one point of focus to the next. You know. Googling. Tweeting. Facebooking. Instagramming. Activities like skimming and scanning are often associated with fractured attention.
Popular claims notwithstanding, hyper-attention does not equal sustained retention.
Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, thought she was immune to the perils of fractured attention. Sure, she saw evidence of fractured attention in many of her students – but that was other people! Until Wolf sat down one evening to read a novel by Hermann Hesse, one of her favorite authors, and found it difficult to focus on the book. Alarm bells rang.
Yes, the non-stop stimulation of a hyper-attention culture affects every one of us. I often have a thought, contemplate an action – and 10 minutes later no longer remember my thought or the action I was contemplating. I will jokingly attribute this to aging but my lapses are, much more likely, symptoms of my own hyper-attention. This is reality: In every business situation, you and I engage with folks who have diminished attention spans.
Here are some time-tested essentials of influential communication. They become exponentially important in our attention-deprived-world. Let’s remind ourselves of a few of these business essentials.
Lead with your main message.
Unless you’re in an explicit brainstorming session, nobody wants to hear you think out loud. Folks long to hear a clear message from you, from the moment you begin to speak. Don’t crawl your way toward your main message as you speak. State it in the first sentence. Let me know where you’re headed. Elaborate afterwards.
Lead with your personal energy.
When you speak up in a meeting, speak with energy, the second you open your mouth. You don’t have time for a sentence or two to “warm up” as you get going. If anything, begin with a little bit of extra energy at the start so our attention shifts from the previous speaker to you. Help me focus on you. You do this by commanding our collective space with your energy. If your energy doesn’t grab me from the start, why the heck should I listen to you?
Lead with the unexpected.
When you speak, draw my attention with a colorful phrase, a succinct metaphor, a compelling analogy. If this does not come easily to you, listen to the pundits that offer commentary on television news shows. As annoying as some of them can be – the good ones have mastered this skill. They grab our attention, from the start, with their choice of language. Don’t wait for the lucky moment of inspiration. Do not try to entice me to listen to you with a lame platitude. Study, experiment. This is a skill that is mastered with a bit practice. Practice.
Lead with a sense of joy.
When you communicate with a sense of delight, I want to listen to you. Ditto when you speak with a sense of joy. Please don’t be overly measured as you talk. Don’t be pedantic. Above all, don’t drone on. No matter how clever your argument is, I will tune you out. Cultivate the art of finding joy as you speak
Want to hear a master at this? Radio dj’s think they can hold our attention by talking really fast with loads of energy. It must be something they learn in dj school. Check out Mindy Ratner’s classical music program on NPR. Mindy knows better. She speaks with a mellifluous voice. She clearly delights in introducing the next piece of music. Mindy doesn’t rush. Ever. She savors what she says. Everything she says matters. And Mindy speaks with a supreme sense of delight in the act of speaking. Mindy gets attention.
Here’s the good news about fractured attention. The techniques just listed will help you to harness the attention of your audience. Any audience. Better yet: After her alarm bells rang, Maryanne Wolf was determined to reclaim her facility for deep attention. Wolf discovered that after 2 weeks of determined focus on the Hesse novel, her ability to immerse herself in deep reading returned. Whew. It took paying attention to her attention.
So, pay attention to attention. Theirs and yours. Claim it and demand it. There simply is no sustained personal impact without it.