If you want to keep people’s attention, you’re going to have to regain it at least once every ten minutes. I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg, but standard 22-minute TV episodes are representative of something like our standard attention span. And even these are broken into segments.
If you don’t include something in your content that feels like a change up or a commercial break at least once every ten minutes, people will begin to drift off. A fascinating piece of research I read a few years ago showed that the average person gets distracted at work once every two minutes. And with the incessant stimulation of smart devices, it is now the case that if a person doesn’t get distracted every two minutes, they will often find a way to distract themselves!
I have looked at old sermons by Alexander Campbell and have marveled at how he could speak for hours at a time on fairly dry topics, full of logic and long quotations, and he could somehow manage to captivate his audience. I guess if your other option was working in a field or behind a plow all day, it was great to have a lot of content to process. But we aren’t living in those times.
Here are some ways to work around the attention span problem:
- Minimize introductory comments. Opening illustrations are fine. But useless small talk about the weather is eating into your precious window of time to make an impact. When possible, launch right into your content while you have their attention.
- Change your style or pace after each major movement in your message. I think of sermons less as a collection of points and more as a series of movements. You might in one message, for example, give expository explanations of a text, tell a heartwarming story, provide an introduction that helps them get into the topic, provide application for what to do, and expound on how the rest of Scripture reflects on the passage you’ve based your message on. I get really bored at sermons that just have a collection of points that stay in one stream. Move about and change up the style and emphasis of what you’re sharing. If you’ve been giving a text description, it’s time to move on to something different. If you’re going to speak for 25 minutes, try to give them at least 5 distinct sections.
- Keep video clips to 3 minutes or less. I don’t have much data on this other than personal experience. With rare exception, if you show a video clip lasting longer than 2-3 minutes, people get distracted, or might begin to feel you are short-changing them.
- Provide summary comments with an offer for longer conversation. If you’ve done your research, it will sometimes be the case that you have a lot more you’d like to say about something than will reasonably fit in a sermon time-frame. In such cases, rather than eat up all your time getting as far down one direction as you can, offer a summary of this direction, and invite people to follow up with you who want more details. It’s fine to tip your hat and say, “There’s a lot more to this, and if you’re interested, please come talk to or email me, but what basically seems to be going on here is _____.” Not that you don’t give any details, but you might end up losing them in what you had considered something of great importance because you haven’t said it fast or clearly enough.
You only have a ten minute window at most before people lose focus. Help them stay with you by giving them something new and varied as you go.