“A goldfish has a longer attention span than a person.” This was the most frequently cited finding of a 2015 Microsoft study that triggered a wave of articles in the popular press about dwindling attention spans (for the record, according to the study, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds, a human only eight seconds). And this statistic had a ripple effect.  

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, contends the “true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.” And how do you gain attention? Tailored and relevant messaging to break through the clutter.  In the public relations and communication industry, we use storytelling. “Storytelling” is one of the most used and overused terms in the field. To tell a brand’s story, companies often create “snackable” videos to placate these shortened attention spans (especially with the Gen Z and Millennial generations). Breaking through the noise to capture attention is one of the challenges of the profession.

But should we be worried about dwindling attention spans? No, we shouldn’t. While getting attention can be a challenge, sustained attention can be accomplished—if the content is compelling—and there are data to prove it. Video-on-Demand and streaming services can capture attention as evidenced by these Netflix statistics:

  • 70 percent of users binge-watch shows
  • The average viewer watches around two hours per day when they are trying to complete a season of a series
  • The average person takes five days to complete the first season of a binge-watched series.

Now, there is a new term to add to the “binge” vocabulary: binge racer. A binge racer is a viewer who completes a season of a series within the first 24 hours of its release, watching between 13 to 15 new episodes (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is the most frequently binge-raced show). More than 8.4 million people can claim the “binge racer” title.

Second to Netflix in terms of viewership is Twitch. If you don’t know what Twitch is, ask a gamer. Twitch is a free-streaming service; their average user spends 106 minutes per day on the site. What are they watching? While there are videos of people enjoying hobbies, cooking, and even Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, the most popular videos are by gamers streaming themselves playing video games. My 10-year-old son and his friends can watch people play video games on Twitch and YouTube for hours non-stop (not an exaggeration).

And not to mention the growing number of podcasts. The most popular podcast of 2017 was S-Town from the producers of Serial (another podcast) and This American Life (a radio program also available as a podcast). Each episode of S-Town averages around 54 minutes (move over, goldfish). As of April 2018, it’s been downloaded nearly 77 million times.

As you can see, attention spans aren’t getting shorter. It’s that stories need to be more attention-grabbing because there is so much great (and not so great) content out there. If you can only hold your audience’s attention for eight seconds, it’s probably because your content stinks.

Dr Paul Zak, professor and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, is an expert in studying how stories can compel the brain to release oxytocin, a “love” hormone or the “moral molecule” that promotes empathy and prosocial behavior. His research found that character-driven stories with emotional content enables better recall of the story, and can even predict how much money a person donates to a charity based on the story (and how much oxytocin is released).  

The key to reeling in your audience is to create emotional connections. Anthony Danzi, SVP of Client Strategy and Sales at Twitch, said in a Huffington Post article that emotion is attention and viewers on Twitch stick around because they are invested and emotionally connected to the community. He said this leads to more attention and time spent on Twitch. Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Washington Post, said their readers no longer want to have relationships with organizations, but rather with people and personalities, meaning their reporters.

Dr. Zak recommends stories need to follow Gustav Freytag’s dramatic arc of storytelling based on five acts:

  • Exposition: background information, introducing the characters, setting the scene
  • Rising action: Conflict percolates, tension is introduced
  • Climax: Turning point, the impact could be for better or worse for the character(s)
  • Falling Action: Conflict begins to resolve
  • Denouement: Story ends, conclusion, the result is typically a tragedy or comedy

Organizations are best served to follow the scientific-based recommendations of storytelling. However, content is not universally appreciated. For some, stories can be compelling while for others it’s not. Ensuring content follows the dramatic arc of storytelling with character-driven stories can help the brain release attention-sustaining chemicals of even the most finicky and scattered audiences, goldfish not included.

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