Can I Please Have Your Undivided Attention?

The other day a friend of mine was telling me about a meeting she attended in person that was an audition for speakers. The candidates had many different personalities and stories but they were all so riveting that "nobody even texted or tweeted" during the presentations. This was in stark contrast to a recent webinar I attended where, in addition to listening to the speaker and watching his slide show, I was also expected to follow the chat window and even contribute. With hundreds tuned in, the chat window scrolled by so fast I could barely read every fourth post. The presenter chuckled as he digressed from his "no-lecture lecture" to answer a posted question every few minutes or so. Billed as a new way to use web 2.0 capabilities to effect learning, this webinar seemed to be to be an attempt to encourage multitasking to the nth degree. I stopped participating after five minutes, but left it on to the end when the speaker received a round of virtual applause and enthusiastic praise in the chat window.

What's going on here? As a public speaker, I am terrified of producing glazed-over eyes so I am acutely aware of my audience response. With a remote presentation like a webinar, the chat window is perhaps the only way the speaker can sense that there is, indeed, an audience. But when a speaker really connects with an audience, attention is undivided. If I need to hang on every word and not miss anything, let's say when I'm interviewing someone for a project, I bring a tape recorder. My notebook is only for jotting down an exact spelling or an important detail. I learn the most when I focus on just listening. From the speaker's point of view, a listener's undivided attention is not just polite; it is an honor. And often this is enough to bring the speaker to an even higher level. (All good interviewers know that people reveal more when they sense genuine interest. That's how great journalists get the best stuff.) After almost three decades of talking to kids in schools, I can sense that there is deterioration in listening skills. Kids today don't have the patience to sit and listen to boring speakers (as if they ever did). But there have been numerous studies on the effects of multitasking on learning. Here are some of the results:

• Since we are hard-wired to respond to distraction (a throw-back to our hunting days where attention to the unexpected had survival value) people are addicted to responding to phone calls and emails. One study claims "Infomania is worse than Marijuana." "Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers."

• When people work at more than one task at a time, they are just shifting attention, not multitasking. The result is that nothing is done very well.

• Multitasking produces an illusion of competence that can create problems in really being able to perform at a high level.

• Heavy multitaskers are worse than average people at filtering out irrelevant information, organizing their memories, and even switching back and forth from one thing to another. In other words high multitaskers have an inability to concentrate -- they are learning how to be ADD.

• In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr reports that many studies have shown that reading with hypertexts produces less immediate learning than straight reading and less retention over the long run. Yet he understands the basis for its attraction. He says:

And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.

There are benefits in catering to short attention spans. The best tweets are like poetry -- reducing concepts to punchy advertising copy. One-minute multi-media approaches bring content alive by appealing to more than one sense. Personally, it has turned me into a better speaker; I've become a performer, something like a night-club act. But real thought is not just bright and shiny on the surface. Many issues are too complex to be reduced to a sound bite. I worry that we will lose the ability to do deep thinking if we get addicted to constant interruption by the beeps of our seductive electronic devices.

I had originally entitled this post "May I Have Your Undivided Attention" but I rephrased it hoping that you can give it to me.