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Communicating in a sound bite world: Engage your audience rapidly or risk losing their attention.

The attention span of today's audiences has become more limited than ever. Television channel surfing is a cliche, and most of us have watched audience members leave seminars early. Studies show people are too impatient to read a long block of text on a web page. "We had people say, 'I don't want to read that long, long text online. Give it to me fast,'" says Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group, which serves Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar and other clients throughout the world.

Besides society's faster pace and ever-expanding media choices, research at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that "extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention."

The result is a "sound bite" world in which messages must be delivered in rapid and stimulating succession--or most of the audience loses interest. Across the globe, business leaders, academics and others, fond of the traditionally thorough, detailed coverage of a topic, disdain this modern wave of communicating in short bursts. "At a minimum, we hope the candidates will focus on substance rather than sound bites," editorialized Canada's Hamilton Spectator in a common lament before an upcoming election.

This is a legitimate point. Nevertheless, we also must recognize that people won't get substance from material they lose interest in--no matter how profound the information. Society is changing, and unless we adjust the way we communicate, we risk losing effectiveness. The International Listening Association found that immediately after hearing someone talk, people usually recall only about half of what they have just heard. Our challenge then is to say it in 50 words instead of 100, and keep it stimulating throughout.

As we make presentations to clients, employees and civic groups and write press releases, reports and articles, what are some of the strategies we can use to be successful communicators in the sound bite world of the 21st century?


Whether we are writing or speaking, the more "hooks" we get into our readers or audience members, the less likely they will drift away. Human beings operate on at least three levels: intellectual, emotional and sensory. The more our messages touch these levels, the more into" our messages our audiences will be.

Intellectual level. This is where people process information they receive, so obviously it's critical that we connect on this level. If we don't, a typical brain will wander. It's essential to be logically organized: get to the point quickly, support it with lively facts, then immediately transition into the next point.

Along the way we can use some legitimate tricks to keep brains stimulated:

* Questions. Why can't our brains simply let a question go unanswered?

* Mysteries. We can't resist a good mystery or puzzle either, although evolution has yet to explain why.

* Outlandish statements. Every article or presentation should include outlandish statements! These attention-grabbers often seem like contradictions, but they can illuminate our subjects once additional critical information is revealed.

* Analogies, metaphors. These colorful devices make dry or complex points mote interesting and easier to understand by drawing comparisons between two dissimilar objects or concepts.

* Similes. Like analogies traveling light, they descriptively use just a few concrete terms to explain abstract concepts.

* Quotations. "Don't quote Latin; say what you have to say, and then sit down," was the Duke of Wellington's advice to a new member of Parliament. Supporting your material with spicy phrases from well-known people is like adding a guest speaker to your program.

* Rhymes, A bad rhyme you make will keep them awake. Good ones will too, of course.

* Slogans, mottos. They stick with us long afterward. I like Southwest Airlines' "You are now free to move about the country."

Emotional level. Emotions are more patient than brains. Audiences will stick with a point longer if their emotions are engaged. Here are some ways to turn on their feelings:

* Storytelling. This works wonderfully, because there is an expectation of an emotional payoff at the end. Even brief anecdotes and word pictures can engage the emotions. Of course stories are much more valuable if they relate to your subject.

* Interactive participation. Encourage people to share briefly their frustrations, triumphs, concerns, hopes. This gets everyone's blood flowing and can be a powerful part of a presentation, though it may rake considerable skill to manage, lest it get out of hand.

* Humor. This may be the most effective tool in gaining an audience's attention. But even humor can be overdone. One speaker focused so much on being entertaining--his message was an almost nonstop flurry of jokes and anecdotes--that by the end the audience had learned little about an otherwise important subject.

Sensory level. Grab someone by the shoulders and she will pay attention. Obviously, this method is not recommended! Because we don't normally touch our audiences physically, the next best thing is to engage the senses that are available to us.

* Eyes. Speakers should make eye contact--though this technique has limits because we can't maintain constant eye contact with everyone. We can use visuals, however, such as graphs, charts, photos, artwork, maps and models to get across our message.

* Ears. We can engage the ears of our audience by including music or auditory effects at critical points in our presentations. When adding music to our presentations is nor practical, we can vary the "music" of our voices (passionate, angry, joyful, serious, humorous, sympathetic) and the rhythm of our speech (slow, fast, moderate, pauses).

* Activity. If people are asked to do something, such as sketch on paper or exchange seats (or whatever might be an appropriate tie-in), their focus is forced to be on your presentation--and as a bonus they are able to learn through an experience.


When writing to communicate, you can pare early drafts of 2,000 words to 1,000 with no loss of the main points. Unfortunately, effective editing is not easy. Nevertheless, with practice we can show steady improvement.

Getting our messages across using half the words doesn't mean reducing research or discarding critical information. It means eliminating incidental facts and cutting non-essential words and phrases that creep in. Here's an example:

Original (87 words): Journey back 100 years ago in American history and you will find horse-drawn transportation was not only dangerous, it could cause injury and often resulted in fatalities. In fact, deaths occurring due to horse mishaps, out-of-control runaways, and other accidents numbered 750,000, which exceeds today's car-related death rate by 10 times when the nation's extensive population growth is factored into the equation. The majority of mishaps occurred in the Midwest, where the relatively less temperamental quarter horses were not as numerous as they were in the West.

Edited (35 words): A century ago, not only was horse-drawn transportation in Americas heartland dangerous, it often resulted in fatalities. Deaths due to horse mishaps and out-of-control runaways exceeded today's car-related death rate per capita by 10 times.


Ultimately, we must rein in our egos and focus on why we write articles or make presentations in the first place--to meet the informational needs of an audience. When we place our audience's needs first, we acknowledge that people are busy, in search of quick information, and not all that interested in minute details.

Ron Sconyers, Brigadier General and director of public affairs for the U.S. Air Force, put it well in a past Communication World article: "In a chaotic and communication-rich world, the goal of our communication strategies must be to create knowledge. Not just imparting data or facts, but presenting information in a way that is so compelling, so interesting, that people can understand it and make use of it. Competition for the public's attention is intense, and the attention span is short."

Stay brief and make it memorable. We can write to be published, or we can write to be read. We can speak to be heard or we can speak to be listened to. Future audiences are counting on us.

Kevin Struck is associate lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Sheboygan Falls, Wis.


Besides society's faster pace and ever-expanding media choices, research at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that "extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention."

The result is a "sound bite" world in which messages must be delivered in rapid and stimulating succession--or most of the audience loses interest.


Contrast interests the brain. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a picture with contrast is worth 2,000.

It's not enough to sprinkle attractive graphics into our material. We can add even more interest through the use of contrast. For example, a photo of a homeless person slouched against a wall may be significant, but the speaker will have to spend additional time explaining precisely why. Now if the photo is cropped more skillfully, making it apparent the wall is part of a publicly financed sports stadium, the resulting contrast stimulates the audience's thinking without one word from the speaker.

From a technical standpoint, contrasting colors and patterns are easier to interpret. Contrast, however, can be more than merely visual--it can be intellectual too. For example, a pie chart may show a 50-50 breakdown of the percentages of males and females attending an event. One wedge is shaded black, the other white. That's great visual contrast, but intellectually the effect is zero, because everyone knows the overall population is about 50-50 anyway. On the other hand, if an additional chart shows the breakdown of males/females actually invited to the event was 75-25, suddenly there's contrast and the audience is engaged as they ponder explanations.
COPYRIGHT 2001 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Struck, Kevin
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Real-life, real-time communication: More than a function, it's the central nervous system of your organization.
Next Article:Leader and member survey results help IABC set future course. (Special Report).

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