How long do you have?

Length matters. I say this partly because, in the last few days, I’ve come across several items on the amount of words needed to convey news. Two in particular spurred on some thoughts:

Both Julien Smith, the author of the blog post, and Michael Kinsley, who wrote the AM article, suggest that bloated news pieces could hasten the death of newspapers and/or other traditional media. Maybe.

This however is certain: if, in your job, you take too long to convey information you will end up like the Dodo bird. The problem rests in discerning what “too long” is. A few general facts re people’s attention spans may help:

  • Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimuli that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds. This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
  • Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes, but a person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.
No business presentation should take more than 20 – maybe 25 – minutes. Can your idea not be conveyed in less time? If it can’t maybe you should rethink about how you are communicating it. Remember what you think is cool about your product/service/invention is often not the same thing as outsiders. Focus on their needs not your fascination with your own genius and you can keep things shorter.

A few random thoughts to help keep it short and sweet:
  • Know thine audience. If your CEO does not read more than a page don’t give him 2 pages. It is amazing how we often behave in a Procrustean way based upon a belief that we “need to take more time/space because the idea is complex.” This guy used to freak at briefing notes that were more than a page – and he is, like him or not, not a village idiot intellectually speaking.
  • For oral or written communications have a time/space goal in mind before you start and adhere to it. Going about things the other way around creates situations whereby everything looks too important to cut.
  • Remember that shrinkage is the way of the future. The modern desk jockey operates with so many distractions that he/she is beginning to work in a world that more closely resembles the buzzing cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet. Our attention spans are shrinking and look to continue to over time. This makes more concise the new black.

Are there other things you do to keep it tight when conveying your thoughts in a business environment?

2 Comments

  • Danny Starr says:

    LOL.. shrinkage is the way of the future. Just be sure we don’t take that out of context.

    I love this topic, the only problem is that I find it is something you either get or you don’t …. and those that don’t get it, most likely never will.

    That’s why they need to start teaching this stuff earlier on in life. When you think about it, we start speaking in one work sentences when we are two. Then somewhere in early high-school we develop this self important voice inside our head that wants to express everything in long, drawn-out diatribes.

    I was lucky and had a prof in university hammer the ability to present ideas briefly into our heads but for some that’s too late. But my biggest trick was one you mentioned with a twist. I would estimate the length or take what was assigned and then take away 20% and that would be my final max.

  • […] As I have said before, brevity is the new black. The digital youth of today – though texting, tweeting etc – are in the unfortunate situation of being schooled to the contrary. […]

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