Content for short attention spans

The typical attention span is now apparently EIGHT SECONDS. At least that’s what was part of a click-bait headline in 2017 and appears to have been mirrored and quoted several times since, and here I am potentially doing the same. Irrespective of whether the 8 second headline is true or not, you don’t need a study to inform you that ‘something’ has happened to our attention span and it is probably not upwardly in its movement.

The radio programmer isn’t new to the concept of short attention, moving on and getting to the point. Perhaps radio has played its own part in the deterioration of the ability to focus for more than a nano second, who knows? The reality is that the art of human communication requires you to get to the point fast. Ditch the preamble and tell me what you want to tell me! There is a slightly more coarse version of that sentiment too, but you get the gist.

“I’m heading for the exit unless you convince me to stay”.

I remember discussing ‘The 3 Second Rule’ with colleagues and it leads into content choices for short attention spans. The nub of the rule was that after playing a song (which the assumption was that the listener liked and enjoyed), a presenter had about 3 seconds when they began to speak to grab the listener’s attention and prevent the mental (or physical) tune out. Whether it was actually 3 seconds or longer is not the issue- the principle is clear… “I’m heading for the exit unless you convince me to stay”.

On the whole, for certain types of format, I think this largely holds water.

“…to this day don’t know who it was that gave me the laughs at the time.”

How content is created, structured and produced for a world in which attention spans are in decline has to evolve though. I was reminded of a session I once attended which talked about the role of a breakfast producer on a music show. The host described how when the show was doing an interview with someone, or talking about a subject or “doing a bit”, the producer would every now and then hold up a card with the word RESET on it in the studio. This would prompt the host, or hosts, to recap the subject matter, or who they were talking to and why, for people who either hadn’t caught it at the start, joined since it began or simply forgot. Its a principle which is extremely useful and should still be remembered. I have a memory of listening to an amusing interview on a live show once which I totally enjoyed at the time, but the show host never said the name of the guest in the 3-4 mins of my listening into the next song, during which time I lost reception and so still to this day don’t know who it was that gave me the laughs at the time.

This came to mind because I was considering how content production evolves with a reduced attention span, distracted lifestyles and casual listening. The problem comes when blanket assumptions are made from grains of fact or truth. Just because we live in an over-communicated world, cluttered with a vast variety of entities vying for our attention, doesn’t mean that concentration, focus and understanding can’t exist. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be any longer form, in-depth content or anything of any substance. The power of the reset though perhaps becomes stronger and all the more important. The frequency of that reset perhaps should also increase.

I was listening to a current affairs podcast this morning with this in my mind as I thought about drafting this post and noticed the attention span deficit being played out in the production. The podcast was certainly in-depth and not throwaway or merely ‘audio chewing gum’. The host had a guest to discuss a topic in the news, and it included some actuality clips from a current news story. The facts stated in the actuality recording were reset by the guest immediately after playing the clip (to ensure that the key points were clear). The host then shortly afterwards used the trick of saying “so in other words what is happening here is…” and then repeated the facts, and assessment from the guest again but in a different way. It was a classic reset. It might be a byproduct of the attention span or just a desire to ensure the end listener fully grasps the point being made, but the reset cycle has sped up a lot. Once I started noticing it appeared that it was happening a lot and to great effect actually. To the casual listener the salient facts sunk in, to the most intensive listener they were ingrained and all the more powerful as a result.

It doesn’t mean subtlety is lost I don’t think, just perhaps that content producers, faced with the onslaught of an over-communicated world and the assault on the listener and viewers attention, need to pick and choose what they leave to chance and that they need to focus on and underline.


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Published by Dick Stone

Radio...its always been radio.

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