the fallacy of the 10-minute attention span

I hate rules based on one-off samples. They are very seductive because they are so simple and memorable, but they are very misleading because they lack context and support. Case in point: John Medina has written a very interesting book which he promotes very well on his website Brain Rules. His marketing has convinced thousands of presenters that audience attention will wane every ten minutes and that they have to do something to recapture the attention – like one adds a coin in the mechanical kiddie ride horse to keep it going.

We all know that attention decreases and interest wanes over time when things stop moving or are repetitive. So this rule takes very little convincing. The source mentioned by John Medina for the rule is a paper by Hartley on note taking. Note-taking? Does that mean that a person not taking notes is not paying attention? What happens when you are given slides with notes before the class starts, will that decrease your attention? How about eye-contact?  What happens in our submarine brain behind its optical portholes?  Is eye contact a bona fide measure of attention?

Next, let’s see what John Medina recommends to recapture or sustain the attention when the ten minutes are up.  Engage the audience emotionally, he writes. What if it is a scientific talk? Is an over-expressed gene emotionally out-of-control? A standard deviation revoltingly deviant ?  A shear strain numerically abominable?

If the presentation is interesting and relevant to our needs, we will keep awake and attentive. Attention wanes because the presenter, who did not bother to investigate the audience’s needs prior to the talk, does not talk to these needs.  Attention wanes because the pace of information delivery exceeds our ability to memorize and process what we hear and see: one click mops the screen and the next leaky bucket of information (what a slide is) floods down the screen. Another mop, anther bucket. The scientist, or should I say the sorcerer’s apprentice, cannot properly handle the high-tech magic wand, and the drama unfolds as people’s minds silently drown – not even Disney can help.  Some blame the buckets and the high tech wand, some blame the apprentice, and some blame the shallowness of the audience’s well of knowledge.

source Flickr; Author: Castles, Capes and Clones.

Scientists, since you have a great story to tell in your oral presentation, tell it as a story. When an act is an act, not a slide, when the play progresses towards a climax, the ten minute rule has no raison d’être. It is misinformation, a fallacy.

By Jean-luc lebrun

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities. Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre - a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.