Thursday, January 21, 2016

Is the average attention span of a presentation coach almost as short as that of a house fly?

At Gerry Sandusky’s web site I found a web page from January 14th titled Act Quickly. Attention Spans are Shrinking. On January 18th it was repeated at Presentation Magazine. He began by claiming:

“I recently came across some research on attention spans that shocked me. It essentially says that most of the people in your audience—whether that’s the audience for a keynote, a presentation, a sales pitch, or a meeting—have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Goldfish!

Microsoft conducted a research study in 2015 that found the attention span of the average North American has shrunk to eight seconds. That’s down from 12 seconds at the turn of the century. Down from 15 seconds late in the 21st century.

Goldfish, on the other hand, continue to hold steady at a nine second attention span.”

I went to the Microsoft web page for that 2015 report, titled How does digital affect Canadian attention spans? and downloaded it.

Page 6 of it says the 8 seconds, 9 seconds and 12 seconds actually came from a somewhat silly web site called Statistic Brain. ( The 8 seconds is for 2013). They were on their Attention Span Statistics web page, which I have previously blogged about. The current version for that web page claims an 8.25 second attention span for 2015. There is no mention of North Americans, and nothing about the 9 seconds for goldfish holding steady. It seems to really be from a BBC news web page back in 2002.

A chart (above) shows the research path I followed beginning with Gerry’s article.

Tooth Fairy Statistics

However, now things get very silly. Those three supposed data sources - the Associated Press, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and the U. S. National Library of Medicine all are Nebulously Authoritative Places (NAPs). They are ridiculously general, and quite opaque. Looking further is pointless as trying to go scuba diving in quicksand!

If you are willing to pass along those unverified attention span statistics, then you probably also still believe in the tooth fairy. But, lots of people have been fooled. Perhaps that is because at the bottom of that Statistic Brain web page there also is a specific reference to an article from February 2008 in the ACM Transactions on the Web by Harald Weinrich et al titled “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use.”   

For example, Joseph McCormack’s 2014 book Brief - make a bigger impact by saying less says in section 2 Inattention - The muscle is weakening of his Chapter 2 on  Mindful of Mind-filled-ness:

“The information inundation is weakening people’s ability to focus and prioritize. Prevailing research says the average attention span is down to 8 seconds from 12 over the past five years (Ref. 7).”

Similarly, an article on January 7, 2016 at Ethos 3 by Leslie Belknap titled How-To Conquer Short Attention Spans also referred to that 2008 article falsely claiming:

“In the study, Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use, researchers determined that the average human span in 2013 was only 8 seconds (the average goldfish can pay attention for 9 seconds).”

Sound Bite Statistics

There’s no 15 seconds listed either at Microsoft or Statistic Brain. So, in a comment, I asked Gerry Sandusky where he got that 15-second number for the late 20th century (not the 21st he said)?

He replied:

“The 15 seconds is a combination of personal experience and television research with soundbites. This article will show you the decline over the past third of the century.”

Without saying so he had changed the topic from attention span to sound bites. Sound bites should be shorter than the average attention span, or they wouldn’t be effective. Based on their length we could hope to get a lower bound for the attention span.

I looked for other articles about sound bites and found one by Joseph A Russomanno and Stephen E. Everett in the Summer 1995 issue of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media titled Candidate sound bites: Too much concern over length? It looked in detail at the 1992 presidential campaign. They noted that:

“Studies have demonstrated a marked decrease in candidate sound bite length since the 1968 campaign. During that period, average sound bite length declined from 42.8 seconds in 1968 to 9.8 seconds in 1988.”

For the 1992 campaign they found an average of 9.90 seconds - almost exactly the same as for 1988. What was the average (in seconds) for each of four networks? For ABC it was 8.05, for CBS 10.37, for CNN 12.45, and for NBC 8.50. Those numbers vary about as much as the 12 to 8 second range reported as if attention span was decreasing. 

Television Commercial Statistics

In October 2005 Jeff Davidson gave a speech that was published as Taking Back Control of Our Days in the November 1, 2005 issue of Vital Speeches of the Day. He said that:

“While the typical TV advertisement was 53 seconds in 1965, by 2000 it had dropped to 25 seconds with 15 second ads as well as 3 second ads peppering viewers at every turn.”

Also, a newspaper article by Emily Fredrix titled TV Commercials shrink to match attention spans in USA Today on October 30, 2010 noted that:

“The number of 15-second television commercials has jumped more than 70% in five years to nearly 5.5 million last year, according to Nielsen. They made up 34% of all national ads on the air last year, up from 29% in 2005.

....On average, about 5% of an audience viewing a 15-second commercial will give up on it. The number jumps to about 6% for 30 seconds and 6.5% for 60 seconds, says Jeff Boehme, chief research officer for Kantar Media.”

On September 27, 2015 I blogged about What can you communicate in 20 seconds or less? In that post I mentioned 20, 10, and 5 second TV commercials.

Bull and Bronco Statistics

How else can we find a lower bound for people’s attention span? Out west there are two relevant rodeo events - bull riding (see PBR) and bronc riding. If people couldn’t manage to pay attention for the length of a full ride, then they wouldn’t be paying for tickets to watch them. Well, both events call for the cowboy to do an eight second ride. So, the attention span really should be more than 8 seconds.

How short is the attention span of a house fly? Would you believe it is five seconds? I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, and neither do you. 

The image of a farmer’s boy and his sister came from Wikimedia Commons, as did that of a bull rider and a house fly.  The tooth fairy was derived from an image found at Openclipart.

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