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Should Attention Spans Dictate Meeting Agendas?

If you believe in attention spans, you need to rethink the sequence of your agenda.
Should you plan meetings around attention spans?
photo by Dustin Askins

"Insanely Simple"

"Death By Meeting"

See author Patrick Lencioni's Table Group speak at Build events in L.A., S.F. and Boston this Fall.

When it comes to attention spans, there are two schools of thought:

1. Each person has a short span. So at meetings, it’s best to tackle important items first.

2. The entire concept of attention spans is a red herring. If a meeting is compelling — important to everyone in the room, and filled with genuine debate — then the room will remain engaged for the duration.

If you believe in the first school of thought, then you need to rethink the order of your agenda. “Studies have shown that the average person can pay attention in a meeting for approximately 20 minutes before becoming fidgety,” notes the web site of PPD Consultants, an engineering services organization based in Sewell, NJ. “Consider setting topic sequence not by perceived ‘importance,’ but rather according to degree of participation required. Try to put any item that needs participative energy near the beginning of the agenda.”

So, how long is the average attention span? PPD points to studies that say 20 minutes. A UK study pegged the figure at 35-37 minutes. Ken Segall, author of Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, favors something in between: “Walk out of this meeting if it lasts more than 30 minutes,” is the advice he gives in an Entrepreneur article called “What I Learned About Great Meetings from Steve Jobs.”

Patrick Lencioni, author of Death By Meeting, believes it’s vital to hook attendees within the first 10 minutes. But sustaining interest after the 10-minute mark is important too. The secret? Bringing conflicts to the surface. “When people seem to be holding back their opinions, the leader must draw out feedback and put all issues on the table to be discussed,” says Jeff Gibson, Vice President of Consulting at The Table Group, Lencioni’s firm. “Conflict is essential to keeping participants engaged. When a group of intelligent people come together to talk about issues that actually matter, it is both natural and productive for disagreement to occur. Resolving those issues is what makes a meeting productive, even fun.”

Call Gibson a believer, then, in the second school of thought: that attention spans are a red herring. “If leaders can embrace meetings and turn them into relevant and effective forums where work actually gets done,” he says, “I assure you — attention span will not be an issue.”



For another compelling argument that attention spans, as a concept, are a red herring, we recommend Virginia Heffernan’s essay in the New York Times, “The Attention-Span Myth.”

Heffernan rejects outright the concept of fixed attention spans, arguing that anyone’s ability to pay attention depends, quite simply, on their interest in the topic.

“So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of The Sun Also Rises; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played.

"The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids’ choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.”

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