Our shrinking attention span has prompted widespread handwringing – and some unflattering comparisons. First it was fruit flies. Now, even gold fish can concentrate longer than the average Internet surfer, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- Average attention span of a goldfish: 9 seconds.
- Average attention span of a human: 8 seconds – down from 12 seconds in 2000.
“Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter, and It’s A Big Problem,” was the Huffington Post headline touting a recent book that laments the “ocean of distractions” – digital and otherwise – we all navigate daily.
But face it: the digital deluge will only intensify. The number of websites alone is approaching 1 billion. Then there’s your inbox, your Facebook friends, your Twitter feed . . . all vying for your attention.
As professional communicators, how can we quickly engage today’s time-starved readers, and win mindshare for our clients?
There’s no magic formula. But here are a few key tips:
Be relevant. Audiences are naturally interested in information that affects them personally and professionally. They immediately want to know: Why should I read this? What’s in it for me? Reward that curiosity with information that quickly answers those questions.
- When writing press releases, for example, resist the urge to fall back on old formulas that make clients feel good but alienate reporters, editors and readers (“XYZ Company, the leading provider of semiconductor and software solutions, today announced a design contest. . .”). Instead, put the audience first: “Developers of innovative energy-saving devices could win $10,000 . . . “
Get to the point. Don’t bury what’s important under what’s not. Ask yourself: What’s the main message I want readers to know? Then craft the top of your piece to convey that central point.
- Avoid starting with unnecessary generalities – in this case, bland background: “Over the past decade, the idea of eating local has gained a lot of momentum in the United States.” Instead, seize the point: “Locally sourced beverages – from craft beers to small-batch liqueurs – are cropping up on restaurant menus across America, complementing farm-to-table cuisine.”
Be concise. Research clearly shows that long sentences and dense paragraphs deter readers. Based on its “Eye Track” studies, the Poynter Institute advises that writers aim for an average of 20 words per sentence. That’s just an average – longer sentences are fine if the syntax is clear and direct.
- The most direct sentences employ active voice. Active voice puts the subject of the sentence – the “actor” – at the beginning. Conversely, passive construction puts the object of the sentence first – and generally lengthens sentences and clouds clarity. Here’s a simple example. Active: The chicken crossed the road. Passive: The road was crossed by the chicken.
Here’s a more extensive list of writing tips to help you capture and keep the attention of overwhelmed readers.