For the past few years, a Microsoft Canada Consumer Insights Report has made the media rounds claiming that the average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds in 2000 to about 8 seconds in 2013, compared to 9 seconds for goldfish.


There are many implications to this work that are lost in the second-hand reporting, and I would encourage anyone to read the core study. For our purposes, though, I think it brings to the forefront that attention is a resource, and a highly limited one at that.


Attention is a resource. We exchange it for other things, we compete for it, we choose to funnel it in one direction or another. Although it is self-renewing, we do deplete it. People who have learned to attract and accumulate it can convert it to money and power – from the leaders, charlatans and charismatics of ancient eras to the reality television stars and political spectacle of today.


As business communicators, we can lose sight of just how tangible attention is. When it is time to say something that might really affect employees’ lives – a change to their health plan offering, a restructuring or workforce action – we must prepare ourselves for intense competition.


To receive your message, employees must shrug off rival messages from their phones and computers, their bosses, co-workers, spouses, friends, acquaintances and families, along with all the daily tasks that we must complete to make our way through the day. Economists talk about “opportunity cost” as “A benefit, profit, or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else.”


I encounter too many frustrated communicators who tell me, “Employees don’t read their emails,” or ask, “Why are people saying they didn’t know about the strategy rollout?” That perspective changes when you think that any message you deliver will have to displace some other stimulus that is also competing for attention. Your messages carry an opportunity cost.
So how do we compete successfully in that gladiatorial arena? That is a topic for ten blogs with possibly a book deal and Ted Talk at the end, but here are three essential tips. Apply these and you will greatly increase your chances of winning attention.

  1. Put the main point on top – Most people need to write a while to work themselves up to the main point. This is fine, but when you are done, take that main point and put it on top. Can people get the essentials of the information they need in the headline? Put the bait on the hook, not on the reel of your fishing rod.
  2. Clear the way – Make the message as short as it can be. Avoid multiple reminders and other bad communication practices that teach employees to ignore you. Influence others to avoid sending communications that are disconnected from defined actions or behaviors. Information-only emails should be as rare as a Goblin shark, not as common as goldfish.
  3. Change the look and the tone – organizations tend towards groupthink. An extended review process will make the writing more generic unless you actively resist it. If your message deserves attention, then it ought to stand out. Do not introduce employees to a significant change in a format that looks and sounds like business as usual. In other words, think out of the bowl.