Few training professionals would be willing to make the following argument:  “Knowledge acquisition is not a major component of performance improvement.” The truth is, if employees don’t learn (or acquire knowledge of) how to do something (or do something better) then there’s no way that they can improve their performance in that area.

If we can accept this thesis, then we can probably also agree that if we want to improve employee performance then we need to do a better job of helping employees acquire knowledge.  Helping employees acquire knowledge is where understanding the human attention span becomes important.

Research by Dianne Dukette and David Cornish (2009) uncovered that adults can only sustain attention for about 20 minutes. The same study uncovered that the short-term response to the stimulus that attracts attention is only eight seconds. What this means in layman’s terms is that you only have eight seconds to get the employee’s attention, and if the instruction or information that you’re presenting takes more than 20 minutes, you’ve lost them.

What’s also interesting about attention span is what happens within the 20 minutes that adults are able to maintain sustained attention. James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University, found that there is a natural rhythm to the human attention span. This natural rhythm requires the subject to experience a stimulus change every few seconds in order for maximum attention to be maintained.

Movie makers have known about this need for stimulus change for years. As a result, film producers have used this natural rhythm to determine the length of camera shots.  That’s why today’s movies are filmed in a way that shots of similar lengths recur in regular patterns.  If you want to see this in action, the next time you watch a movie start counting “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three….” Every time the camera angle changes, observe the pattern.

Maintaining the attention of corporate employees can be greatly improved if these principles are integrated into an information distribution approach.  The approach can be accomplished in live, virtual and asynchronous settings. All that needs to be done are three things:

1)    Do not spend more than 20 minutes transferring knowledge,

2)    Do something in the first eight seconds that captures the attention of the employee, and

3)    Introduce some type of new stimulus every few seconds of the interaction.

Here’s a video that mimics the post that you’re reading, but utilizes the concepts that we’ve been discussing.  What you will notice is that the length of the video is much less than 20 minutes. Music and animation were introduced in the first eight seconds in order to capture your attention. A camera angle shift or pan or zoom was also introduced every few seconds in order to leverage the natural rhythm of the attention span.

The next time you need to create a learning object or transfer knowledge to an employee, try this approach and send me a note to let me know how it worked.