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.

The Danger of Disengagement

Yesterday I enjoyed a couple of very encouraging, although too brief, conversations on preaching.  One thought that was bounced around was one I have addressed on here before – the fact that shortening attention spans is a myth.  People will listen as long as they are engaged.  For some preachers, that means an hour long sermon is entirely possible, while for others, twenty minutes is beyond what they can manage.

This issue of attention brings two thoughts from two very different “homiletics” voices to mind.  First, David Buttrick is among those who suggest that really people can only concentrate in short blocks of time, perhaps up to five minutes.  So the preacher should plan their message in order to recreate attention in these blocks.  I won’t go into detail on that here, just that simple thought may be helpful.

Second, Andy Stanley has helpfully pointed out the danger of disengagement.  What happens once people disengage from our message?  Stanley suggests that once someone disengages, they start to process the preached information in a different way: “this is irrelevant; church is irrelevant; God is irrelevant; the Bible is irrelevant.”  For Stanley the key is to keep listeners travelling with you on a journey.  (For a teaser of Andy’s book, here’s an interview on communication with Ed Stetzer – Andy Stanley interview)

How do we engage our listeners?  How do we keep them engaged?  Do we really recognize the danger when they disengage?

Give Me A Break!

Listeners can concentrate when we motivate them to do so. But it is important to remember that it is mentally tiring to maintain intense concentration.

In a conversation we find ourselves checking out now and then, or cracking a joke periodically to bring relief from the intensity. In preaching we need to be considerate of the mental energy of our listeners.

When I was growing up and preaching some early sermons (or versions thereof!), my church decided to believe the hype about concentration spans (i.e. it is impossible for contemporary listeners to concentrate beyond 15 minutes). They were conservative enough to want to keep their 30+ minute sermons, so they decided to break up the sermons with a hymn or chorus at the half-way stage. The logic seems clear enough. The idea was flawed. As a listener I could tell it didn’t work. When I preached I could feel the problem! After singing and switching off for several minutes, the preacher had to re-introduce the sermon in order to get listeners onboard again. Don’t try this at home.

However, listeners do need breaks in the intensity now and then. A good illustration can really help (as long as it is somehow moving the message forward rather than merely pressing pause). Humor carefully used can break tension, release some steam as people take the chance to laugh, then re-engage more willingly. Varying pace, pitch and power of the voice are critical, not to mention the strategic use of pause. In reality people can’t concentrate for even 15 minutes at once, it is more like 3-5 minutes – so carefully shape the sermon in appropriate length movements with very deliberate and careful transitions!

Concentration uses energy, even when people are motivated. So as a preacher don’t simply shrink every sermon or chop it up to allow for commercial breaks. Instead strive to stir motivation (interest, need, thirst), design sermons in suitable movements with careful transitions, and present with an engaging enthusiasm that provides appropriate breaks to keep people with you.

Concentration Confusion

We are regularly told that contemporary listeners have drastically diminished concentration spans due to the changes in contemporary culture (sound bite journalism, bite-size online reading habits, commercial break saturated television, etc.)  What these “concentration span experts” fail to mention is that movies seem to be getting longer, not shorter (whatever happened to the good old 87 minute tales of the 1980’s?)  They don’t recognize that people engrossed in a good book will still read for uninterrupted hours on end.  They omit to note that a good conversation still eats up many telephone minutes.

Undoubtedly our culture has shifted on numerous levels.  Perhaps people are less willing to tolerate boredom.  But concentration spans are not the issue.  A good movie, a good book, a good conversation all hold attention as they always did.  The issue is whether or not people are interested in what is before them.  With interest people will watch a movie without flinching, focus for hours on a football game (whichever football you think I mean by that!), with interest they will surf the web losing track of time, read a book for hours on end, converse without looking at their watch.  With interest people will even listen to a sermon.

So should we indiscriminately shrink every sermon?  No.  But we should be interesting.  We should craft messages that not only pique imagination, but create a thirst for God’s Word relevantly preached.  We should endeavor to improve every aspect of delivery so that we don’t get in the way of effective communication.  The CSEs (concentration span experts) point to the listeners and claim they can’t take preaching anymore.  I point the finger at us and say let’s prove the CSEs wrong!