The attention span of your audience

I often hear writers say that nowadays, people don’t have long attention spans. They say this when expressing their hesitancy to share about what they create. The context may be to:

  • Not post too often on social media
  • Only send infrequent newsletters
  • Write only a very short bio for their website
  • Only tell their friends and network about their book at the moment of publication, not before
  • Not talk about what they write and why
  • Share very little about themselves

So they justify doing less, less, less, and frame this in the logic of “Well, people have short attention spans, it’s better if I don’t share much of myself, share too often, or take the risk of talking about my own work.”

Their concerns are that as they develop their author platform, build a community around their writing, and prepare for a book launch that they don’t want to bug people.

These writers say they don’t want to overwhelm people. They describe how they personally don’t like getting a lot of newsletters, or don’t like it when someone shares posts more than once a day on Instagram.

But like my post last week, part of this is the fear that if we do too much, we will be seen as a “self-serving marketer.”

So today I want to talk about this topic and why this matters as you develop your platform and grow your audience. Why do I think people have a long attention span? Simple: we make time for what we appreciate. And we see this all around us.

If you are a writer or creator, you likely do this because throughout your life, you have been inspired by others who have published work that you love. Art, books, music, performance, and more. Perhaps this is part of why you do what you do.

What we create is about what we want to see in the world. But it is also about who we are, the way that we understand, explore, and express our identity. We make time for that.

Is there more media and content out there today than their was 20 or 40 years ago? Sure. But that is because we are better able to create and share. We are now able to find individuals, ideas, and art that inspire us in ways we never could have imagined back then.

In some ways, this work has become more in the moment, more bite-sized. A Tweet, an Instagram story, a video shot quickly on someone’s phone, then published. And perhaps that is why many people fear their audience has a short attention span.

But in totality, I think it is really the opposite. Our attention spans are longer because while many engagements may be small — our ability to connect with one person, or follow one topic has become expanded. If an artist I follow shares 12 posts on Instagram per day, and I view all of them, then in a given month I have gone so much more deeply into their creative process, their inspiration, and who they are as a person.

I see this play out in other ways. I see podcasts that are getting longer and longer. Hourlong interviews. Two hour interviews. Three hour interviews.

I’m seeing Instagram Live and Youtube live Q&A chats that go on for 20, 30, 40, 60, 90 minutes.

I am seeing people getting better at expressing who they are — holistically as a human being, and as a creator — and sharing that at length in essays, videos, blogs, and on social media.

And I see audiences not only following, but engaging.

If you worry that people today only have short attention spans, let me ask you:

  • Do you only read short books?
  • Do you only watch short movies?
  • When you hear about a new TV show everyone is talking about, do you refuse to watch it if the season has more than 8 episodes?
  • Do you find yourself only scanning news headlines, and never reading the articles?
  • Do you find yourself only checking Facebook or a social media for 30 seconds or less, because you lose interest?
  • If you come upon an essay about a topic do you love, do you first check to make sure it is 500 words of less?

I didn’t think so. I would imagine that you would tell me about how you love digging deep into art and media that inspires you.

My guess is that our attention span is perceived as short because we are looking for what will engage us deeply. So yes, we are constantly sifting through the content that doesn’t interest in order to find what does.

From an author platform and marketing perspective, consider this: your ideal audience isn’t the middle of the bell curve. You know, the masses of people who may buy your book but never crack it open. Your ideal audience is at the edges of that curve: the people who will not only buy your book, but read it. Not only read it, but be affected by it. They will talk about it with their family, and recommend it to friends.

That is who you are engaging. That is why you do this work of learning how to communicate what you create and why. And the deeper you go, the more likely you will find and engage the right people. Those whose interests and identities align with what you create.

This is how relationships work in really life. It is about the quality of connection, and also about frequency of connection. This is how we develop a sense of community with those who live around us, with those who work in the same office as us, with those who are regulars at the same gym or coffee shop as us.

This is how human beings connect around shared experience. The way we do it online is similar. This is a skill that you build — learning how to communicate effectively and build trust in the process. The good news is that a lot of this is very old fashioned:

  • Clarity in writing
  • Focusing on what people love talking about or the reality of your own lived experience
  • Being consistent
  • Engaging with others as a way to show they can engage with you
  • Being a generous, caring member of a community

This is classic advice that would have been as applicable in 1990, 1970, 1950 or 1920 as it is today. The basics of psychology, trust, communication, and connection remain the same.

Build these basic skills of what it means to communicate your message to someone, and build trust with them. Not only is it effective, but it feels good! Imagine a writing career that felt fulfilling.

Are people distracted? Sure. Are they busy? Yes! Because of this, people are very mindful of where they put their attention. If you want to attract and engage an audience, you have to develop the skill of keeping people’s attention. Not by begging for it, or doing things you don’t like, but by doing the opposite.

Sharing authentically.

Being proud of who you are.

Giving your self permission to create and share.

Knowing that your creative journey will resonate with others.

Connecting in meaningful ways to others who create.

Engaging with readers as real people.