Listen to the audio version of this post here.


I’m not asking you to follow me down a rabbit hole.

Instead, I’m back from that tortuous trip with an urgent question for you.

It all started, as thought-journeys sometimes do, with a New York Times article. Bret Stephens and Gail Collins, highlighting the myriad catastrophes and conundrums we face in the fall of 2021.

A “cosmic shift,” Collins called it. “The old social consensus was, at minimum, being … questioned. Since then, we’ve been learning to live in a new world.”

Stephens not only agreed. He had an explanation for it. Neurohistory.

Yes, it’s new to me, too. The word makes sense though. It’s a newish area of study using the evolving field of neuroscience to make sense of the past.

And this hit me between the eyes. The most important event of the past 20 years, Stephens said, was “that we created algorithms, digital platforms that scrambled our brains.”

Get this:

“The new technologies have shortened our attention spans, heightened our anxieties, made us more prone to depression and more in need of outside validation and left us less capable of patient reflection and also less interested in seeking out different points of view.”

Anxiety, depression, even the need for outside validation are above my pay grade. Worthy of exploration, for sure, and I’m not really the person to do it.

Short attention spans, however, are right in my wheelhouse, especially when it comes to our business life.

How do we get attention from clients, customers, and others we need to influence?

And once we get it, how do we keep it long enough to do any good?

Whether we’re writing an email, speaking at a conference, or laying out our big idea in a meeting, it’s all noise in the air if we don’t have their attention. And research backs up Bret Stephens—attention spans are short and getting shorter.

I have a few thoughts, and I’m eager to hear yours too.

Make your key point clear, concise, and close to the top.

That’s what I told a writer looking for tips to make asynchronous meetings more effective. It applies to most of our professional communication, even when we’re talking with people right there with us in real time.

If I there’s one big idea I need to convey, it’s risky to wander around laying the groundwork and then finally build to the main point. That can work for really gifted communicators with a perfect audience that cares deeply about the subject. The rest of us risk losing our listeners before they hear what we most need them to know.

Say it in plain English. (Or whatever language your audience speaks.)

Unless you know you’re talking to people who understand your technical jargon, academic lingo, and acronyms, you’re better off to translate them into words everyone is likely to use on a regular basis.

The moment someone in a meeting feels you’re talking over their head is the moment they start thinking about something other than the message you’re trying to deliver.

How can you be more interesting?

Maybe it’s a clever turn of a phrase that will capture attention for you. Maybe you can use appropriate-for-business humor to keep them engaged. Perhaps you have a riveting story to illustrate your key point.

Or maybe you do a brilliant job with visual aids—your slides will drive home your point and make them want more. You might use a real or virtual white board to illustrate what you’re saying, or even an old-fashioned flip chart.

In writing, use a format that draws people in. Stay away from big, dense blocks of text. Break it up into shorter paragraphs, with headings or bulleted lists to draw attention. Or to draw attention back from wherever it wandered while they were staring at a screen.

Focus on them.

Yes, you’ve heard me beat this drum before. It’s worth repeating: the more central your audience is, the more interested they will be in your message

No matter how much they care about you and your subject matter, you can be sure they care most about how it applies to them. Not because they’re selfish—because they’re human.

You’ll want to tap into their self-interest to get and keep their attention.

There’s another side of this neurohistorical attention gap.

The algorithms and digital platforms that have scrambled our audience’s brains have had an impact on ours, too.

I don’t know about you, but I really do find it more difficult than it used to be to stay focused.

Setting out to write, say, this article, I’m distracted by an email, a phone call, a random thought about who’s responded to my LinkedIn post and what they said and how I need to reply and whether that will impact the algorithm and…

Have you read Cal Newport’s Deep Work? It tackles this very issue, offering “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” It’s quite good. Also (this is hard to admit) I got discouraged—and distracted—and didn’t finish it.

Maybe most of us are slaves to our neurohistory and we should just accept that focused attention is thing of the past? I’m curious about how you keep your attention on the work at hand, whatever your work is.