They Can’t Concentrate That Long!

I’d like to return to something that has been addressed on here before.  The idea that people now have a reduced attention span of fifteen to twenty minutes (insert similar number of your choice).  This is a myth.  Urban legend.  Fallacy.

People have never had a concentration span that long.  Good speakers know that people will stay with you for a few minutes.  Then if you engage them as listeners in some way, for another few minutes.  Then if you engage them again, for another few minutes.  3-5 minutes is probably the attention span of listeners today, as it was yesterday and fifty years before that.  Good speakers can hold (or regain) attention, bad speakers never could.

People can concentrate as well as ever.  I was chatting with a good friend this morning and he mentioned how young people will focus 100% for five hours without a break on a video game.  Movies are actually getting longer.  Some of the popular speakers today speak with good meaty content for 40 minutes to an hour (and the younger generation flock to hear them).  If something is worth hearing, and if the presentation is engaging, then length of presentation is not the issue many make it out to be.

So what to do about it?  In simple terms, preach well.  Better content and better delivery will have people listening better.  Gimmicks won’t.  Using visual multimedia won’t improve concentration.  Dividing a forty minute message into two twenty minute sections won’t improve concentration.  Giving people a pen and paper won’t improve concentration.  There may be a place for all of these ideas and many more, but they won’t fix the problem of inattentive listeners.  That will be fixed by better messages and better presentation.

3 thoughts on “They Can’t Concentrate That Long!

  1. I think you are right about the attention span. People don’t pay attention to boring things. A presenter who speaks for five minutes and is boring will have less impact than a presenter who speaks for an hour but is engaging.

    I disagree that multimedia won’t improve concentration, however. I should say, multimedia will improve retention. You’re correct, that pictures and video won’t make a boring speaker interesting, but they can make an engaging speaker easier to engage and the information easier to retain.

    Look here for the source: http://brainrules.blogspot.com/2009/12/worth-thousand-words.html

  2. “Preach well,” is, indeed the answer. I would simply suggest that most of us think we preach better than we do! John Stott said (somewhere) that a “sermon ought to last 20 minutes — or feel like it.”

    I have been in services where the pastor preached for 45 minutes and I never noticed. I’ve been in others where it was pure agony (for us listeners). Some pastors are good enough to preach lengthy sermons — many are not!

  3. That’s my name, honestly.
    I agree, it’s not just an attention-span issue.

    We have a crippling problem in the West: we think the seat of personality resides in the intellect.

    I’m a convert, went from evangelical to eastern Orthodox Christian 15 years ago. One thing that drove me away from the evangelical church: stupid sermons of any length, short or long.

    One thing that made it possible for me to discover Orthodoxy: the homily is shorter and it isn’t “ground zero” for the Orthodox liturgy, it’s only part of the preparation for Jesus showing up and partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

    I love a good preacher as much as the next guy, but a good sermon or Bible teaching only goes so far. Speak to the entire person, and problems with attention span will take care of themselves.

    The Orthodox liturgy has survived pretty much in its current form for approximately 1500 years because it touches the entire person. The evangelical church’s concept of salvation is so focused on juridical (guilt and atonement) that it lacks scope to speak to the entire human soul.

    The intellect is only one of the three powers of the soul. Look up the other two yourself; if I try to describe them in this brief missive, it’s too easy to see them in a Western context and totally, absolutely misunderstand them.

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