Note: This post was originally published on July 11, 2011 and has been slightly edited.
Attention is a payment of the brain’s resources.
It requires that we adjust, engage and sustain each of our nine brain areas involved in attention. We must also exclude, suppress or ignore external and internal distracters–and often that’s the real difficult part. Ultimately, we need a highly disciplined internal state and the right brain chemical balance to maintain attention.
This is why paying attention is not easy to do. It is work and demands considerable energy.
Engaging Focused Attention
When participants are actively engaged, their brains release pleasure chemicals. Passively listening to a speaker diminishes the release of those pleasure compounds. That’s why creating event experiences that have high engagement actually activate more of the pleasure structures and create memorable events.
5 Ways To Foster Focused Attention
Here are five conference conditions that lead to focused attention:
1. Participants chose relevant, meaningful content.
Most conferences do not have enough time to provide surface coverage of all of their requested topics. Many try to provide too many topic instead of laser-focusing on primary issues.
When content goes deep and it’s a relevant topic, participants become engrossed in the learning without regard for time. We need more content depth, less content breadth.
2. The process of meaning-making is separate from maintaining attention.
Either the conference presenters can have the participants’ attention or the participants can be making meaning of the content. The two cannot co-exist simultaneously.
Meaning making is a requirement for learning. It is internal and takes time. Hearing more content conflicts with the internal process of thoughtful reflection and connecting content to previous experiences.
We need more conference presenters to help attendees practice the skill of reflection and meaning making.
3. Brevity rules.
While going deep is critical for relevant, practical content, and takes more time, the length of focused attention time needs to be severely cut. The human brain is not designed for nonstop attention. It needs time to process information.
15-20 minutes of direct instruction is a guideline presenters should follow. Then allow 15-20 minutes of small group discussion or personal reflection. Repeat this process several times during the session for content depth.
4. Strong emotional hooks that lead to increased satisfaction.
Online video gaming forces players to pay close attention or lose status fast. Players are compelled to focus more attention on the task and rewarded with virtual badges, status and symbols.
Conference organizers need to set up experiences that incentivize attention. During each presentation, attendees should create goals first. As they share these goals with others, they internalize them. Presenters should then ask, “What will happen when you reach your goals? What will you experience?”
As simplistic as it sounds, this discovery process creates an emotional hook to the goals. If the hooks are strong, attention resources get a boost!
5. Participants have the right fuel for thought.
More meeting professionals are paying attention to the food they offer for meals and breaks.
Attention, learning and memory retention create an enormous drain on glucose in the brain. Low blood sugar leads to tired, listless and inattentive participants. Protein is needed to provide energy for thought.
What conditions would you add to this list that increase focused attention at conferences and events? What keeps your attention?
Interesting thoughts as usual, Jeff. Just “thinking out loud” here, but what do you think about putting something like a restroom/snack break in between a keynote and the QnA session? I know many would be scared of losing eyeballs and ears, but wouldn’t the resulting session be more for the truly interested and have given them a few minutes to digest and “make meaning”?
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for reading and “thinking out loud!”
Actually, the research coming from the education field is that Q&A should never be at the end of a presentation. It should be something that the presenter addresses through out the entire presentation. I believe in using the “law of motion” or “law of two feet” that allows people to leave at any time if the presentation does not meet their needs.
That being said, I do like the idea of having another session perhaps after a break, later in the day or the next day, to continue the conversation with the presenter and/or go deeper. That truly gives people a chance to digest and think about the content more so they can make meaning of it.