Communicating in a Sound Bite World: Engage Your Audience Rapidly or Risk Losing Their Attention

By Struck, Kevin | Communication World, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Communicating in a Sound Bite World: Engage Your Audience Rapidly or Risk Losing Their Attention


Struck, Kevin, Communication World


The attention span of today's audiences has become more limited than ever. Television channel surfing is a cliche, and most of us have watched audience members leave seminars early. Studies show people are too impatient to read a long block of text on a web page. "We had people say, 'I don't want to read that long, long text online. Give it to me fast,'" says Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, which serves Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and other clients throughout the world.

Besides society's faster pace and ever-expanding media choices, research at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that "extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention."

The result is a "sound bite" world in which messages must be delivered in rapid and stimulating succession--or most of the audience loses interest. Across the globe, business leaders, academics and others, fond of the traditionally thorough, detailed coverage of a topic, disdain this modern wave of communicating in short bursts. "At a minimum, we hope the candidates will focus on substance rather than sound bites," editorialized Canada's Hamilton Spectator in a common lament before an upcoming election.

This is a legitimate point. Nevertheless, we also must recognize that people won't get substance from material they lose interest in--no matter how profound the information. Society is changing, and unless we adjust the way we communicate, we risk losing effectiveness. The International Listening Association found that immediately after hearing someone talk, people usually recall only about half of what they have just heard. Our challenge then is to say it in 50 words instead of 100, and keep it stimulating throughout.

As we make presentations to clients, employees and civic groups and write press releases, reports and articles, what are some of the strategies we can use to be successful communicators in the sound bite world of the 21st century?

ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE ON DIFFERENT LEVELS

Whether we are writing or speaking, the more "hooks" we get into our readers or audience members, the less likely they will drift away. Human beings operate on at least three levels: intellectual, emotional and sensory. The more our messages touch these levels, the more into" our messages our audiences will be.

Intellectual level. This is where people process information they receive, so obviously it's critical that we connect on this level. If we don't, a typical brain will wander. It's essential to be logically organized: get to the point quickly, support it with lively facts, then immediately transition into the next point.

Along the way we can use some legitimate tricks to keep brains stimulated:

* Questions. Why can't our brains simply let a question go unanswered?

* Mysteries. We can't resist a good mystery or puzzle either, although evolution has yet to explain why.

* Outlandish statements. Every article or presentation should include outlandish statements! These attention-grabbers often seem like contradictions, but they can illuminate our subjects once additional critical information is revealed.

* Analogies, metaphors. These colorful devices make dry or complex points mote interesting and easier to understand by drawing comparisons between two dissimilar objects or concepts.

* Similes. Like analogies traveling light, they descriptively use just a few concrete terms to explain abstract concepts.

* Quotations. "Don't quote Latin; say what you have to say, and then sit down," was the Duke of Wellington's advice to a new member of Parliament. Supporting your material with spicy phrases from well-known people is like adding a guest speaker to your program.

* Rhymes, A bad rhyme you make will keep them awake. Good ones will too, of course. …

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Communicating in a Sound Bite World: Engage Your Audience Rapidly or Risk Losing Their Attention
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