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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay Attention ... If You Can

I recently guest-lectured in a university course with the title “Computer-mediated Communication,” in which approximately 40 students sat at rows of tables and peered at me from behind computer monitors. At first glance, the course might better have been called, “Computer-impeded Communication.” My “pre-Senior” friends told me later that the students should have turned off their machines and listened to me.

Yet I saw the challenge as “computer-competitive communication,” and as a social experiment of sorts. Rather than being the sole source of information for one hour, I would have to work up my most effective communicatin skills to compete for students' attention. Equally important, I became like them, a student, who wanted to observe and learn how this digital generation divides attention.

Here is what I discovered …
  • Most students seemed not to be multi-tasking but engaged in “continuous partial attention.” Social analyst Linda Stone, who coined the phrase, says that multi-tasking gives almost equal attention to familiar tasks that increase efficiency and productivity: talking on the phone and filing papers, for example. By contrast, continuous partial attention prioritizes attention, keeping one source of information such as my remarks as primary, but staying accessbile and jumping impulsively and often emotionally between any opportunity at the moment – for instance, a rumor on FaceBook -- that lets you feel connected and alive.

    Several students did multitask, at least periodically, and explored, verified, and maybe even quietly challenged certain points and references I made by asking me for a URL or the spelling of a name, which they then tapped on their keyboard, scanned the site, and bookmarked the information.

  • The students didn’t strike me as rude by shifting their attention back and forth between my talk and their screens. Actually, they seemed respectful. Their non-verbals reassured me – eyes wide-open, most sitting upright, some leaning to one side in their chairs while reading or typing so they could see and be seen. However, some non-verbal cues were ambiguous for me as the presenter. For example, if I tried to be humorous to emphasize a point, I sometimes couldn’t tell if some were smiling at my comment or an IM that just flashed on the screen from a friend.

  • Continuous partial attention may be rampant in what Stone calls the transition from a 20-year era of "Connection" to the emerging era of Protection and Belonging. However, it had been around in some forms for decades. In my student years, the computer was not around to distract, but certainly other interruptions, welcomed by me, interfered with my paying attention to the teacher: my next-desk friend whispering to me, my notes surreptiously laid in front of me so I could crash for a quiz in a later class, or the windows encouraging me to daydreaming about after-school football.

  • As I walked around the room and drew closer to the students, they paid more attention to me. Of course, some were probably embarrassed that I might glance at their private stuff on the screens. Still, I sensed that the closer and more one-on-one or one-on-few interactions I had, the power of conversation took over. As with any conversation – the purest form of communication, I think -- at close range, I could watch their expressions to check if I was making sense and adjust my words accordingly. They seemed to be listening more intently and were a bit readier to ask a question or comment.

And here is what I learned or reconfirmed about presenting:

  • To minimize distractions, maximize the human medium. I could have added PowerPoints to my presentation, but that would have introduced yet another medium that would compete with me and their computer connections.

    Too often, PowerPoints become a proxy for the much more effective medium of talking humans. And too often, the number of PowerPoints is endless and crammed with data and silly animations. Think about the reaction of the folks in the back row. The lights have been turned down and they are told that they might not be able to read some slides from back there. In other words, take a nap because you're not important enough to learn anything.

  • On the other hand, the content of a presentation and even the speaker’s infectious style alone will not guarantee understanding. Engage the audience any way possible. Another guest lecturer at the same university greets students at the door as they enter and then uses their names in his remarks and the Q&A. Smart. Try it.

    Also, move away from the lectern -- and bring your script if you have to -- but put yourself in a position where you are forced to use your hands and the rest of your body to emphasize your points. Finally, ask questions, rhetorical and direct, to help the audience connect with you and you with them.

  • Finally, integrate the audience’s devices – primarily smart phones and laptops – into the presentation. Tell them to check a website or SMS a certain person on your staff for an answer. Give them ownership of learning. In hindsight, I regret not doing that with my lecture.


Lucian Lu said...

I'm the guy to whose class Richard guest-lectured. I harvested many insights from his lecture, as I just did from this one of his blogs. I hope my "partially-attentioned, multitasking” students felt the same. I initially felt guilty for putting Richard in a computer lab and thus pitting him, in a competition for my students’ attention, against the complete world that is brought at my students’ finger tips by the Internet. Richard’s this blog mitigated my guilt.

I believe the task of the modern speaker is tougher as the contemporary audience suffer a severe attention deficit, a result of over-taxation of their attention by the barrage of information of all kinds. The result, in Richard’s words, is a plethora of “information-dumpers” and a paucity of “idea-thinkers.” The situation is worsened by the highly diseased modern psychology and mentality of efficiency—the more, the better; the quicker, the better. Modern life has embraced “efficiency” too long and thus has betrayed and forsaken the concept of “effectiveness.” The result? A “rat race” where a few win and most lose while all remain rats. The modern life is plagued with the bane of “busyness” and totally dissevered from the boon of real “business.”

Richard Skaare ... said...

Lucian: Your point about efficiency vs. effectiveness is a good one and, I believe, a core issue for business people. Blackberries and iPhones glued to ears do not necessarily equate to productivity. It is easy in business to create heat, which comes from the motion of meetings, emails, and the like, and yet no light, as in results.

Gopal said...

Useful and interesting blog for all communications professionals.

Gopal Sutar
Media Editor
Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), P.O. Box 5101
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