John Medina's great Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School makes the rather depressing assessment that people's attention span taps out at about ten minutes. Without some sort of change up, your audience checks out. They scan their email and tweets, they start daydreaming, or they begin to wonder if anyone will notice if they get up and leave.
Surely people's attention span isn't that fleeting, right? But then we’ve been conditioned by the glowing screen that is TV. On average an American sitcom is just 22 minutes long. The first section, or act, of the sitcom is just 7-8 minutes followed by a set of commercials. Trust me, someone at the networks figured out those particular times to maximum profits from your minimal attention span.
What about the epic long rock songs? The ones that hold the listener into a long groove, a track that you can live in? Those go on longer, right? I assumed so, but then I listened to those "epic" songs that I had in mind. Needless to say I started with Led Zepplin. When in doubt, get the Led out. But guess what? "Stairway To Heaven" is only 7:58! And the epic "Kashmir" clocks in at only 8:28. Both about the length of a sitcom segment.
I needed more evidence. I was pretty sure Pink Floyd’s extended live version of "Comfortably Numb" goes on for half an hour. Nope. It's under nine minutes.
Wait, you know who has some impossibly long grooves? Funkadelic! And as it turns out the two longest songs of theirs that I know, "Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow" and "Maggot Brain," are indeed over ten minutes but only by a few seconds, 10:07 and 10:21 respectively. I would've thought "One Nation Under a Groove" was easily over ten minutes as well, but it’s a mere 7:32.
There must indeed be something to this 10 minute wall. Maybe bands or their producers unconsciously know this. Maybe The Stone Roses were in the studio playing the full length version of "Fools Gold" and at 9 minutes and 54 seconds the drummer, Reni, thought “I’d like a sandwich now” and put down his drum sticks. Whatever happens, (and as I’m not a developmental molecular biologist like John Medina I can’t really explain this), as a presenter you need to be aware of this 10 minute wall and use it to your advantage.
How can speaking to an audience who are going to check out 10 minutes into your talk possibly be a good thing? Because you can regain that attention almost as easily as it was lost. You just have to make sure you change things up at those same 7 to 8 minute intervals like TV network programers do. Or plan things out like a classic rock DJ, who has that next awesome song already queued up.
In the next post we’ll cover some tips on how to re-engage your audience throughout your presentation. Stay tuned!