A client sent us this question: “I have a quick question relating to your research on attention span.  I have a co-worker who wants to keep a meeting to no more than 10 – 15 minutes because he has heard that the attention span for adult learners is limited to 10 minutes.  I am all for concise meetings, however this seems to be a bit of an extreme measure to try to get around the attention span issue rather than making sure you build in changes in delivery modality every 10 minutes or so (as you suggested in your presentation at the Summit this year).  What do you think of very short presentations?”

An interesting meeting can last for 2 hours and feel like 10 minutes. A dull meeting can feel like 2 hours even though it is only 10 minutes. There are several ways in which you can make a longer meeting “feel” short:

Change the delivery modality, as you wisely named it, and therefore the level of stimulation. This means that the boss speaks for a while, and then invites someone else to speak, shows a video or some slides, and returns to more conversation or debate. There is a reason people watch movies for 2 hours straight: images and plot change fast and frequently.

The image below summarizes the various media and delivery formats that someone can switch in a presentation or a meeting: slides, video, group discussion, individual speaker (either the host or a guest), review a handout, invite someone else to speak, and return to slides for summary.

Present great content. It is impossible not to pay attention when someone shares content that is perceived as novel, incongruous, or engaging. When the novelty wears off or things start to become predictable and passive, it’s time to end the meeting. Take a look at the introductory screen in the presentation below. When the first screen introduces a question that invites participation, you’re annoucing an atypical meeting or presentation.


Begin with novelty, incongruity, or engagement to secure attention

Vary the complexity. What makes us bored? Things that are too simple, can be carried out with minimum attention, and provide little stimulation. If the meeting materials are too simple, it’s best to keep the meeting short and sometimes even email people instead of meeting them in real time. When things are complex and the meeting host is willing to engage others, then you can prolong the meeting.

Use a personalized approach. Let’s pretend you had a team of 10 people and wanted to meet with them for an hour. Depending on the topic and context, it may be better to have a 6-minute meeting with each person privately, than with all 10 for 60 minutes. When the situation allows, this is something to consider because one of the techniques that definitely alleviates boredom is customized, one-on-one conversation and feedback. It is very difficult to allow your attention to wonder or to multitask when you’re the only one meeting with the boss.

I enjoyed the other question posed, which is not that frequent: how short is too short? (Usually, I receive questions about how long is too long?). The way to gauge the length is this: make it long enough for people to perceive substance, and short enough to make them anticipate the next event without dreading it.

This brings us to the last point. Meetings or presentations are not created in isolation; they are typically part of a continuum. Just the way you add variety inside a meeting or presentation, it helps to have variety in the way they are offered across time. For example, if you’re known for super short meetings, schedule a longer, more in-depth one, with complex and varied topics. If you’re known for super long meetings, schedule a short one, where people are not even allowed to sit down. Surprise your audience by offering the opposite of what they expect.

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