Tag Archives: attention and retention

Attention Without Deficits

Texting_Emoji commons wikimedia
                          Source: Commons wikimedia

The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience: when our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness.

The Broadway actress Patti LuPone is apparently at the end of her tether. As was recently reported in the New York Times, during a performance of a play at Lincoln Center she grew frustrated with an audience member who texted continuously through an entire act.  The texter was downfront, just a few feet from the actors. Finally, at the conclusion of the last scene LuPone grabbed the offending phone from the audience member as she left the stage.

The problem of audience members otherwise engaged has been more common in recent years, notwithstanding pleas from theater managers that audiences shut down their arsenals of personal hardware before the lights go down.

As for LuPone, the multiple Tony winner reports that she is utterly defeated by audience members staring into blue screens.  With dismay she notes that she may give up working in live theater.1

Anyone who makes any kind of presentation to a group knows how daunting it can be to remain effective when an audience member visible to the presenter has decided to opt for an electronic environment over the one they are in.  Any electronic surrogate that gets more attention than the human who striving to connect is bound to produce some justifiable anger. Making a choice in favor of the device not only signals a kind of aggressive indifference to the performer, but other audience members as well. In its own small way, it’s an tacit act of sabotage against a presenter who has a right to expect at least minimal responsiveness.

To say that as a culture we have a problem with granting others our sustained attention is obvious, and not completely attributable to our growing obsession with constant connectivity.  Commanding the interest of others always requires the mastery of a very narrow path that threads its way between vast spaces of boredom and distraction.

Cayleigh Goodson aptly illustrates this lack of focus that seems to make attention deficits an emerging norm .

Research on the nature of the fickle human attention span includes a lot of cautionary conclusions.  Among them,

  1. Attention Is Intermittent Rather Than Continuous. We make a serious mistake if we believe that humans give themselves over to just one thing at a time. This only happens in times of emergency.  Otherwise, our attention to one object wonders, turning on and off faster than lights on a traffic signal.  This is why oral presentations need some tactful redundancy.
  2. Demands On Americans For Attention Are Enormous. It comes as no surprise that we have immersed ourselves in environments that flood us with messages. In the pre-electronic world it was not always this way.  Previous generations more or less chose their communication moments, especially when work was a more solitary process. Now the arrows are mostly reversed. Those moments mostly choose us: a result of the constant connectivity of e-mail, texts and other proliferating forms of social media.
  3. The Rate Of Decay For The Retention Of Content Is Very Steep.  We could not function effectively if burdened with the cognitive consequences of all that we take in.  So our brains protect our sanity by discarding most of the data that washes over us.  With its emphasis on ceaseless mayhem, news alone would drain our abilities to act on the premise that every event is potentially transformative.  So our restless information-processing requires that we ignore a lot, sometimes making us useless as engaged interlocuteurs.

From this last perspective, Patti LuPone is just another momentary intrusion in a continuous parade of incoming stimuli. But she has a right to be ticked off. The challenge for all of us is to know when we are part of a true audience.  There’s a simple imperative we need to honor:  When our presence is part of the presenter’s consciousness, we should act on the clear obligation to be responsive to their efforts.


1Erik Piepenburg “Hold the Phone, It’s Patti LuPone,” New York Times, July 9, 2015.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


The PowerPoint Crutch

-powerpoint-presentationPowerPoint, video and computer illustrations can help reinforce a presenter’s ideas.  But they can also create their own distractions and disrupt the flow of ideas.

None of us can attend a presentation these days without immediately noticing a nervous speaker double checking the computer, projector and screen that will be a part of what ever is about to unfold.  The equipment needed for a presentation to a group used to be simpler: little more than a podium and a glass of water.  Today even a routine request to a college student to lead a brief class discussion on a reading is apt to trigger on onslaught of unnecessary slides.

It’s usually a good idea to ward off this impulse. PowerPoints are not the salvation of every talk.  Indeed, its easier to argue that they are often the problem.  Given the natural nervousness that comes with making any presentation, its no surprise that we look to a computer application to bale us out.  But preparing an outline of a presentation for an audience to read is a weak strategy.  Your presence can be more interesting than any set of slides, and in at least one rare instance, less lethal.

After the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry over Texas in 2003 a NASA investigation team looking at the accident cited, among other things, a PowerPoint slide prepared by Boeing that was supposed to summarize the risks posed by ice and foam hitting its wings during liftoff.  This was usually a routine occurrence.  Ice that had built up on the fuel tanks always fell off and hit the shuttle during a launch. The problem was the PowerPoint slide itself.  It was so unclear as to be meaningless, leaving decision-makers in a fog of confusion.  Had the risks been stated more clearly, a plan B might have been formulated to save the crew of that mission.

Facsimile slide from NASA Columbia Investigation Board Report, Vol. 1, August 2003.
An ambiguous slide cited by the NASA Columbia Investigation Board Report, Vol. 1, August 2003.

Fortunately, most presentations do not produce casualties. PowerPoint, video and computer illustrations can help reinforce main points. But they can also create their own distractions and disrupt the flow of ideas.  As anyone who has sat through someone else’s vacation pictures knows, we are usually less interesting to others when we try to convert our stories into slides.

There are a host of problems with most PowerPoints:

  • We use too many.
  • Slides often compete with speakers rather than complement their ideas.  Indeed, we are culturally addicted to screens.  Our attention moves to them even when they have nothing useful to show.
  • Slides can state something, but they don’t explain well.  And oral messages should be all about rich and detailed explanations.
  • Completing a set of slides gives us a false assurance that our presentational burdens have been met.  But that’s a false impression.  It’s the speaker’s obligation to be the center of attention, using all the resources of the voice and body.
  • Making other people read your ideas is settling for second best; it’s passive when what an audience truly needs is passion.
  • A presenter should not be the note-taker for an audience.  People usually get more out of a presentation if they are the ones converting the presenter’s ideas into notes.

I once advised a person who was about to address a business group to forgo PowerPoints in favor of a knockout face-to-face presentation.  When she told the executive that hired her she wouldn’t need to use computer and projection equipment, he hardly paused before insisting that she bring along something to show.  It’s funny that we don’t require stand-up comedians to travel with visual props . Comedy presenters understand that its their presence that needs to be the center of attention.  Even so, if a presenter feels like they will appear to be a Luddite without something to show, they should opt for the Ted Talk approach:  only one idea on the screen at time, thoroughly proved, explained and fully amplified.  Above all, slides must never compete with speakers.  They should simply state in a few words what a speaker is about to turn into a verbal rhapsody.