Am I boring you?
It’s a question many of us have asked ourselves, or bravely of others. On video calls it’s that moment when people switch off their video to “save bandwidth” (aka start surfing on a different site). For others it’s when they begin to check their phone for important messages while you desperately try to finish your insightful presentation or witty anecdote (they’re playing a game by the way).
However, as interesting as you are, you may have to accept that attention spans aren’t what they were. Spending too long talking risks losing your audience forever. According Adrian Chiles (interviewer), the shorter your answer the better. He says “never talk for more than a minute in one go. Less is always more. On air, I hardly ever find myself despairing because an interviewee’s answers are too short.”
Keep it brief in interviews
While your friends may tolerate your rambling story, interviewers who don’t know you are much less likely to pay attention. Many interviewers admit being turned off by people spending too long answering a question. Frighteningly that’s despite the purpose of the interview being to try and understand the person they’re interviewing by getting them to answer questions.
However there is a guide to answering questions based on attention spans and research around interviewers:
- Less than a minute. Interview questions that have factual answers can usually be answered in less than a minute. No need to spend ages explaining why you want that salary.
- 1-2 minute answer. You can usually respond to most interview questions in 120 seconds or less. If the interviewer wants more they’ll prod you for it.
- Three minute answer. A completely open-ended question might require a two or three minute answer. Usually this comes at the beginning of the interview when you are asked to talk through your accomplishments. Although you could go on longer, just remember the person on the other side of the table / phone is having to concentrate hard to listen and assess. Go on too long and they’re playing catch-up and you’ve lost your edge.
Extending attention spans
The “thinking in minutes” rule is important as your interviewer (or indeed friend or manager) will have a short attention span. It’s not unusual. If you’ve got this far down this article you’re doing well – most will have stopped by now to check a phone or clicked on a link to go elsewhere .
Attention spans can be extended but only if people are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating. Attention is also increased if the person is able to perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task.
Am I still boring you?
There are other reasons people may find you boring. Most of them relate to not engaging with your audience at the right level or time.
So one way to make yourself less boring is to share more. There’s nothing like a tale of embarrassment or poor behaviour to endear yourself to others. The key is not to make it all about you, as people can only listen for so long.
Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce the time people can focus. Common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task range from about 5 minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults.
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Don’t have that important conversation just before lunch, there’s evidence that brain fatigue kicks in faster at this point and chances are concentration will be at its shortest.
After losing attention a person may restore it by resting, doing a different kind of activity, changing mental focus, or deliberately choosing to re-focus on the first topic.
That’s why in work meetings it’s important to schedule breaks, inject some humour or some simple tasks people can engage with to recharge their mental muscle.
Some things can’t be rushed
Obviously in some circumstances and environments going on longer does win out.