by William Smook

Read this column before it’s banned!

Our attention spans are changing how we communicate


Wearing my hat as a media trainer (there really is a hat. It has feathers, like the one worn by Tintin’s swashbuckling ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock), I try to explain the need for brevity and clarity. One example I sometimes use is that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a crucial point in the American Civil War.

Briefly, the orators of his day spoke for around three hours at a time and were much valued for their ability to hold an audience’s attention. Following the particularly brutal battle at Gettysburg, which killed or maimed 50 000 Americans, Lincoln spoke at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery there in November 1863. He saw the importance of the moment, but instead of holding forth for hours, Lincoln spoke for around two minutes, during which he coined the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The writer Daniel Hannan reckons that phrase originated with the theologian John Wycliffe in 1384. Anyhow, it’s been widely used since Gettysburg to explain the importance of democracy, as well as explaining American exceptionalism.

We have local examples of brevity too: Nelson Mandela’s speech at his treason trial in 1964 was relatively brief, as was Thabo Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech in 1996. Mangosuthu Buthelezi is in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest speech, in 1993, but it’s known for its duration, not its content.

Why is all this important to us in business today? A Pew Institute study in the US found that students benefit hugely from instant access online to a variety of sources, but that their tendency for analysis is diminished. Clearly that will continue into working life and social life, and will affect how business communicates with them.

That’s most evident in social media, with its breathless, hyperbolic and increasingly tiresome efforts to grab your click-through.

Two ways to try to grab your attention: make it shocking or make it celebrity-centric. It’s like driving while a Kardashian runs along, trying to put a pamphlet under the windscreen-wiper. (Whenever this happens, put the windscreen-wipers on really fast.)

The plethora of clickbait and listicles can make browsing downright tiresome because so much of it is blatant rubbish. “This one weird trick to lose weight” means “buy our dodgy product.” So do “Millionaires don’t want you to know this secret!” and “Read this before it’s banned!”

“Life-hacks for the kitchen: number seven changes everything.” No it doesn’t. Putting baby tomatoes between two side-plates before cutting them changes how you slice the edible fruit of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum, nothing more.

The new language of clickbait is like estate agents’ euphemisms, where “compact” means “tiny” and “exclusive” means “optimistically overpriced.” It leaves us jaded, unfocused and feeling duped.

The need to get us to click on crap is all about data. I can’t imagine why Google is interested in me playing Scrabble online or reading up about why the odd-looking hourglass-shaped design of the Meyerhoffer XYZ longboard makes hydrodynamic sense, but apparently the data is pure gold. It makes me feel equally uneasy and important. I’m partial to hourglass-shaped things generally, but you won’t find much online evidence of my preference in that regard.

The blogger Rob Weatherhead, who writes about matters digital, writes in the Guardian, “say it quick, say it well,” while the fabulously-named Professor of Business Psychology, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says we live in an era of continuous partial attention and must adapt to that.

Whatever the age or channel, the lessons of Lincoln remain. He spoke briefly at Gettysburg, but not because he was about to fall ill with smallpox, which he was. Lincoln spoke for as long as he needed to make his point clearly and quickly.

*William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn’t surf enough.


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