Capturing attention in a distracting world

I recently stumbled across a January 2011 article called The incredible shrinking sound bite  about just published research that revealed that “…the length of the average TV sound bite had dropped dramatically, from 43 seconds in the 1968 presidential election to a mere nine seconds in the 1988 election”.

The article itself challenged the prevailing assumption that the compressed sound bite is due to “… lack of time, a glut of opinion, gaudy graphics, Twitter-sized attention spans, and so on…”. It inspired me to embark on a search to explore:

a) the true, current state of our attention spans and
b) what techniques / solutions are being proposed to attract this gnat-like attention span?

I was derailed almost immediately by an infographic from December 2011 under the heading Attention spans have dropped from 12 minutes to 5 minutes – how social media is ruining our minds – claiming “..  a study done on comprehension found that people who read text only understood far more than those who read text integrated with video [so while] video is a popular part of social media, it actually disrupts our concentration.”

I had always believed the apparently opposite argument that “…our brains are programmed to absorb a combination of visuals, movement, and audio very quickly. In fact, according to the Weiss-McGrath Report1, if you present information using voice and visuals (i.e., in a video format), retention is staggeringly higher after 24 hours” – source: A Video That’s Worth 1000 Content Marketing Words.  ( I did appreciate that one was talking about ‘comprehension’ while the other referenced ‘retention’.)

So which is true? Or can they both be true because, while I instinctively felt unconvinced by assertion one, the additional comments that “…every time we start a new task, the brain has to re-orientate itself. Interruptions can be deadly to production but the internet is designed to distract…” gave it a more logical context.

My investigations led me to the Content Marketing Institute   and to a highly pertinent 2012 whitepaper by Brightcove  called The New Content Marketer : Earning and sustaining consumers’ attention in a more social world, which advocates the power of video as an effective means of generating awareness and attention.

CMI also introduced me to the hot topic of RWD – responsive web design2 – a tangentially relevant subject on my original subject but something I felt I should know about.

I was also distracted by an article by Kevin Hodgson –Strategies for online reading comprehension,  a useful insight into how to help young students make the internet a tool for enlightenment rather than distraction.

So, the process I went through to research this blog post showed exactly why sound bites (and any other attempts to capture a browser’s attention) need to be succinct and structured for the medium.

I don’t  entirely agree with Rob Weatherhead, Mediacom’s Head of Digital Operations, writing for The Guardian when he said:  “The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of ‘instant gratification and quick fixes’ which leads to a ‘loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking’ ”.  However, I do agree that “…[content] owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across. If you don’t, their cursor will be heading to the back button and on to a competitor in the blink of an eye.”


1 A study entitled “The Weiss-McGrath Report” found that after 72 hours, participants retained 10% of verbally presented information, while those who received the information visually retained 20%. But those who both heard and saw (visual and verbal presentation) retained 65% of the information. Read more at



About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Feature SM, Internal communications, Social media, Video Infographics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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