Attention spans aren’t what they used to be, presenting a modern-day dilemma that creates new challenges for each of us, and even more so, for companies and organizations who thrive by ensuring their messages are seen and heard. How can we grab people’s attention when they are bombarded from all directions?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

We have all heard that expression before. But in this era of information overload, you only have a critical three seconds to make that first impression. That’s all it takes anymore for the consumer or reader to decide if he is interested in hearing more. That impression might be made by the sound or tone of your voice, the headline on an advertisement, or even the choice of colors and pictures. Three seconds is all you have to get your target audience to focus on you and have your message click with them.

Many people bemoan this state of affairs and pine for a simpler era, when we slept on feather pillows, and not with a BlackBerry on the night table, but you just can’t turn the clock back, at least until November when daylight savings time ends.

I got a greater appreciation of both the problem, and a potential solution, while perusing an article in a recent McKinsey Quarterly that both caught, and held my attention, for 3000 words – much longer than three seconds. McKinsey and Co. are realists. They didn’t glorify multi-tasking or take multi-taskers to task. They did give solid pointers on how some top 21st Century executives are managing to cope with a flood of information and not drown in it.

Perhaps most insightfully, McKinsey gave us a glimpse of what it takes to get the attention of busy people.

The root of the problem, according to McKinsey, is that when we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient. A recent study showed that participants who completed tasks in parallel fashion took up to 30-percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently.

Unlike red wine, multi-tasking does not improve with age and we don’t get better with experience. Heavy multi-taskers take even longer to switch between tasks than occasional multi-taskers.

Since it always seems as if we are multi-tasking in this day and age, it is now clearer why we sometimes have trouble concentrating on or relating to another piece of information that comes our way. There is hope, however, but not unless your piece of info really hits the bulls-eye.

Gary Loveman, CEO and president of Harrah’s Entertainment told McKinsey that you can gain his time, but “you need to do some work” [in advance] and “provide me with data and insight…”

Christine Beasley, England’s Chief Nursing Officer took a similar view: “You cannot read everything. The things that I do look at are the things that matter, the things I really need to make a decision on.”

McKinsey also noted that in their conversations with Loveman, Beasley and other CEOs, executing strategies in our “always-on” environment (except for us of course, on Shabbos and Yom Tov) requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and can’t be done alone.

Collaboration really works. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School analyzed 9,000 workers in creative fields and found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person.

The same notions can be applied to marketing and advertising. Just as you need a doctor to diagnose you and an accountant to give you tax advice, you can’t market or publicize alone. In an era where attention spans are taxed as much as our wallets, marketing is a collaborative effort; best done in consultation with a marketing firm that will craft a message that is creative, insightful, informative and gets it across in a way that matters to busy decision-makers.

This Week’s Bottom Line Action Step: Take out time to focus. Then develop your message to resonate above the clutter!

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