What You and a Goldfish Have in Common

I’ve discovered something in the last few weeks. It’s rampant all over the corporate world. It’s a pandemic that spreads like an annoying rash. Oddly enough it has to do with a goldfish. Have I got your attention? It’s the curse of gab.


It’s a rare occasion when you can find someone who speaks concisely, who uses words efficiently and conveys their message in 20 words or less.


How the Goldfish is Involved

A couple years ago, Microsoft actually did a study on the length of the average adult human attention span. They discovered that the magic number is 12 seconds. That said, with the introduction of smartphones and mobile internet, our attention span has officially dropped from 12 to 8 seconds. To put this into perspective, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. Congratulations. We now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.




This means that if it takes you more than 8 seconds to deliver your message, you lost them. Anything beyond 8-second mark sounds like “mwa, mwa, mwa” in their head. It reminds me of all the grown-ups in those nostalgic Peanuts cartoons. Incidentally, I came across Mashable’s article on the story behind all the ‘mwa mwa mwa,’ which I found quite humourous. I digress. Back to being concise. Never was this exemplified so explicitly than in my daily morning project stand-ups.


via everydayshortcuts.com Peanuts

Taking a page out of the Agile project handbook, we have stand-ups each morning. This is where the team gets together and each member takes a couple minutes to update the project team on what they accomplished the last business day, and what’s on their plate for the next eight hours. The tendency, however, is that people start to regale the team with the 50 million things that happened in the last 24 hours, followed by all of the outstanding tasks on the project plan until go live. I’m not sure why this happens. Perhaps when people have the floor, they see it as an opportunity to showcase all of their worldly talents and how busy they are. We get it. You’re smart. You’re earning your keep. Let’s move on with life.
I also find that the phenomenon of the soapbox is also a long-standing culprit for verbal diarrhea. I used to have a project manager who just loved to show off how much he knew about the client’s industry. Every meeting, he would spend 15 minutes educating us on all the ins and outs of the climate of the industry. While it was interesting, it was mostly irrelevant. It was great that he knew all this trivia about the industry. He might have even had the best intentions to train his team. But there is a time and place for everything. Drinking out of a firehose doesn’t quench your thirst. It just creates a big flood. You need to apply the filter of relevance.



The Filter of Relevance

As I mentioned in my post How to Super-Charge Your Power of Persuasion the person in whom everyone is most interested is himself. This is Rule #1. Hence you will understand that when someone has the floor, most people take the opportunity to regale in gory detail every single little task that they did, and every single sub-sub-sub task that needs to be completed from now until eternity. I get it. It feels super good to regurgitate your entire to-do list. However, there are a few minor details that are inherently wrong with this:


  1. 1. No one else can follow
    2. No one else cares
  2. In my 20 years that I’ve interacted as a consultant in the corporate world, I can appreciate how frustrating it is when a person goes on and on. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, you just give up and deliver an empty nod. Inside you’re thinking, “whatever, I’ll ask you again later when I need to know.” As in many a meeting, I frequently cast a look around the room. All I see are blank looks coupled with indifference and boredom. Instead of the person talking to you, he’s now talking at you. Nothing gets through.
  3. via http://giphy.com

  4. If I can inspire you today to concisely deliver your message in 8 seconds or less, it’ll make my day. No year. No decade.


Two Other Golden Rules to Speaking Concisely

Besides Rule #1 being that people are interested mostly in themselves, there are two other rules that will help you powerfully convey your message.

2. Deliver in 8 seconds or 20 words or less.


According to Celest Headlee, in her TED talk, the average person spews between 100 – 200 words per minute. Breaking that average down, that’s roughly 2.5 words per second. In 8 seconds, that means you get 20 words. Knowing this, you can bet that your audience will receive the first 20 words that come out of your mouth. The rest… well “muah muah muah.” Hence, choose your words carefully.


3. Filter out Irrelevant Doo Doo

Dude. Twenty words ain’t a lot of words. Don’t waste them on irrelevant information. The difference between an exceptional communicator and one who drones on and on is that the first delivers information that the recipient cares about. The second buries his audience with random BS that they don’t care about.


Why do people do this?

It occurs to me that all of this verbal diarrhea stems from one thing. See Rule #1: People are most interested in themselves. At the heart of it, they don’t really care about whether or not their audience has received the message. They’re out to showcase all of their brilliance. “Look at me! I’m so smart! I know all this stuff!” What they don’t realize is, of course, Rule #1: Everyone else is also most interested in themselves. Hence to be concise with your message is to get out of your own ego. Try on the perspective of your audience.


What if You’re Delivering a Presentation?

Most conversations, let alone presentations are way more than 8 seconds long. Can you imagine how much more we could accomplish if everyone took only 8 seconds to convey their message all the time? Alas, that is impossible, and for good reason.


Knowing what you know now, you need to optimize your presentation for 8 second attention spans. Fortunately, ethos.com came up with a few golden tips, courtesy of Ethos3:


1. Start Strong

Knock them out in the first 8 seconds. If I may add my two cents: Every presentation takes far more than 8 seconds to even do the introduction, let alone the entire delivery. Your presentation needs to address one thing and one thing only: Why should They Care? When you constantly ask yourself this, you will deliver powerful punches and gets your audience asking for more every single time.


2. Mix it Up

According to Sean O’Brien from Fortune.com, you have a precious 5 minutes where your audience will follow you before their mind wanders off to something:


A) more important, or

B) more interesting.

This means that if your audience is still following you after the first 8 seconds, you’ll still have 4 minutes and 52 seconds to capture their attention before they are completely and utterly mentally exhausted. Of course, they’ll still be sitting in front of you, eyes fixated on your PowerPoint. But inside their heads, they’ve got visions of soccer games and lunch menus. So organize your presentation in small 5-minute experiences, with little breaks in between. All you need to do is take a small pause to reset your audience and prime those guys for the next 5-minute experience.



3. 10 – 20 – 30

I’m currently reading The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki.. Guy is a venture capitalist, who was also instrumental in marketing the first Macintosh for Apple back in the day. Having been subjected to countless boring-ass presentations by aspiring, yet often clueless entrepreneurs, he came up with this rule: 10 – 20 – 30. 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 pt font. Deliver your presentation in 20 minutes or bust.


The Art of the Start 2.0: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything - Audiobook Download


4. Make your presentation worth their while.

The best way to capture an audience’s attention is to give them information that is meaningful and valuable for them. Again observing Rule #1 (People are mostly interested in themselves), delivering your presentation with their perspective in mind is the core to making them care about what you’re saying.


Still with me? Ok, in the spirit of brevity, I charge you to go forth and be concise!

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