June 9, 2019 / Esther Choy

Gemma Briggs and Steven M. Smith on retention

Our conversation with Dr. Gemma Briggs, senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University:

1. In the “Busting the Attention Span Myth” article on BBC, you argue that attention spans are not getting shorter, and that the idea of an “average” attention span is not meaningful.

Is this good news for public speakers? Yes, the notion of an average attention span isn’t very meaningful for psychologists, largely because how we apply our attention is affected by many different factors, including what the task we’re trying to complete is, what our previous experience is with similar tasks and what else we’re trying to do. People can and do focus their attention well when they want to and are interested in a particular task or activity. Although there are more distractions available to us now that doesn’t mean we are unable to pay attention to something of interest. In terms of public speaking, this means a speaker who can capture the attention of an audience, via whatever method, needs to work to retain their attention throughout the talk.

2. You mentioned that how we apply attention to different tasks depends on what the individual brings to the particular situation.

What might this mean for public speakers? For instance, are there ways they can encourage their audience to apply greater attention to the task at hand? The individual experiences of people can directly shape how they perceive and interact with the world. This in turn can affect what captures and retains someone’s attention. This means that although collectively an audience can get a general message from a talk, the individual experience still remains somewhat unique. Speakers might find ways to personalise a talk by asking audience members to think about a particular personal situation or memory, and use that as a basis for explaining over arching concepts. Ultimately though, the decision to fully apply attention in any context is in the hands of each individual.

3. You noted that “expectations and our experience directly mould what we see and how we process information in any given time.”

Does challenging those expectations lead to greater ability to process information? Are there ways you’ve seen this done effectively? I’ve touched on this above, but by expectations I’m referring to cognitive rules of thumb, or scripts, that we all have for certain situations. These act as shortcuts for how we perceive and apply attention (e.g. when going to a restaurant, we have a script for what will happen: sit down, get a menu, order, get your meal, etc.) When we know what to expect, we may pay less attention as less cognitive effort is required. This works well in everyday life, but when we try to dual task we can over-rely on these kind of shortcuts/expectations to the extent that we fail to notice things around us. So the notion of challenging expectations means something different here. However, if you put people in a situation which deviates from the norm for that particular task, and you ensure that they aren’t multitasking, you could in theory encourage people to apply more attention to the task. That comes with the caveat of individual differences, touched upon in question 2 though.

4. You’ve done a great deal of work on dual tasking. Could you sum up why dual tasking is problematic?

This really depends on what the two tasks are! My research into phone use while driving shows that the tasks of a hands-free phone conversation and driving actually require some common attentional resources. This is because speaking with someone on the phone causes you to picture where they are, what their saying and what they’re doing. These mental images draw on mental resources which are needed for accurate visual perception of the driving scene. So in this case, the problem is that there is competition for shared attentional resources in the brain. As with most competitions, there’s usually a winner. If the phone conversation ‘wins’ the resources, driving performance quickly deteriorates, leading to serious consequences. There’s no universal explanation for why dual tasking may be problematic as it all depends on which tasks an individual is attempting to complete.

Our conversation with Dr. Steven M. Smith, professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Texas A&M:

1. For audiences listening to a public speaker, what factors are working against memory and retention–especially factors that might not even occur to the speaker?

Hindsight bias, sometimes referred to as “the curse of knowledge,” is the biggest problem. That is, the speaker knows this term or that concept, and so they unconsciously assume the audience knows it, too. Another big problem is that telling people something only one time, especially the meaning of an important term or an acronym, does not mean that the audience will remember it for the rest of the presentation. If someone misses the original explanation, or forgets it 30-seconds later, they can be totally lost. Use frequent reminders!

2. What would you change if you could alter one thing about the way most public speakers deliver their messages (thereby helping audiences learn and remember better)?

Many speakers think that the goal is to prove that the speaker knows their stuff, but the real goal is to get a clear message across. Audiences remember only a few things from any talk, so the speaker needs to know exactly what those few things are, and present them with as little distraction as possible. Counterproductive distractions include having too many words on the screen, having cute but irrelevant things on the screen, and funny but irrelevant jokes.

3. What do speakers have to do to make sure that audiences not only hear them, but actually understand the messages? What can speakers do to help audience’s memory that have nothing to do with speaking? (Body language, engaging the other four senses, etc.)

Check in now and then with the audience – ask a question, ask for a show of hands, to see if they get what you said. A risky, but potentially effective strategy is to make a relevant joke that can be understood only if the audience gets the point — no laughs shows that they didn’t get it (or that you aren’t as funny as you thought you were).

4. Speakers are so often limited to delivering a speech or workshop in only one space. But are there ways you’ve seen them creatively multiply the number of contexts for learning? (Maybe follow-up work?) How do your findings about the role of context influence the way you teach and speak?

Knowing something independently from a single context is how we acquire knowledge that is generally useful. That requires understanding the same idea in varied contexts. I try to bring up ideas that are similar to the ideas I am trying to get across, things that audience members may know from other contexts. For students, I bring up and highlight concepts they should have gotten from previous classes, but I assume they have mostly forgotten those concepts, so I provide plenty of helpful reminders about their prior learning. Similarly, when you teach concept X, have the audience imagine X in other contexts, to help them generalize that knowledge beyond the classroom or workshop context.


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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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