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Lost After 6 Minutes

The evidence mounts. We’re learning why so much preaching and teaching produces thin results in the lives of the recipients.

It’s not due to the speaker’s lack of charisma, or failure to prepare, or theological imprecision.

It’s not due to the irrelevance of the message itself. It’s as relevant as ever.

Rather, it’s due to how our brains are wired. Much of the the typical 20- to 40-minute lecture-style monologue never makes it to the brain–or the heart. So, much of the finely prepared and delivered teaching falls, quite literally, on deaf ears.

Educators have been studying this phenomenon for some time now. Some of the latest research comes from the University of Rochester. Research scientist Philip Guo recently studied the efficacy of online education, specifically the use of teaching videos. He found that the average engagement time with any teaching video maxes out at 6 minutes, regardless of the video’s total length. And engagement times actually decrease the longer the video. For example, students typically spend only 3 minutes on videos that are 12 minutes or longer.

The research on teaching videos may also be applicable to live in-person teaching as well. British researchers recently found that the average adult attention span has dropped from 12 minutes a decade ago to just 5 minutes now. That means if a preacher or teacher speaks for 30 minutes, the audience will tune out 84 percent of the message.

Personal spoiler alert. I find this data backed up–in my own personal attention span experience. I’m afraid it’s true for me. After 5 or 6 minutes of a sermon, lecture or speech, my mind wanders. I’m thinking about other stuff. (The time is not totally wasted. I often do some of my best thinking while someone talks into a microphone in the background.)

Everybody knows children have short attention spans. They telegraph their disconnection with the teacher. They squirm, rustle, vocalize and act up when their minds wander. Adults disconnect too. They’re simply better at concealing their mind-wandering. They may look directly at the speaker, and even nod, but after a few minutes, their minds have left the building.

They’re not being impudent or uncaring. They’re simply following their brains’ limited ability to lock on to a speaker for a length of time.

How can teachers and preachers adapt to this reality of the short attention span? Researcher Guo said, “The take-home message for instructors is that, to maximize student engagement, they should break up their lectures into small, bite-sized pieces.” So, effective teachers and preachers will set up a thought for a few minutes, then switch to different points of attention. These may include another person–a different speaker or an interviewee. Or, perhaps a video clip, or a simple experience, or a prompted discussion or conversation. Every few minutes they change the mode, renew everyone’s attention, return to another short bit of lecture, and so on.

We see evidence that Jesus understood the limits of the human brain. Most of his recorded teachings are short, succinct–and powerful. And he even acknowledged the limited capacity of his listeners when he said, “I have many more things to say to you, but they are too much for you now.” (John 16:12)

32 Responses to “Lost After 6 Minutes”

  1. I could only make it to the third paragraph. ;)

    (Not really. Great post.)

  2. When I give public lectures on ancient disease, I make sure that I jump from disease to disease, bit of this and a bit of that to keep the audience listening and it usually works as everyone is listening to see if I have something to say regarding what ails them.

  3. Rick commented on Facebook: “Thom, what you are touching on here is something that is nothing short of an entire rethinking of communication method as used by nearly 100% of preachers. I have been beating this drum quietly for awhile and experimenting with methodology that creates high levels of retention. But be aware – there will be push back from many quarters as we meddle with and challenge the status quo that in reality is highly ineffectual.”

    • Jeff commented on Facebook: “I completely agree with the article and I appreciate that Rick has taught me that it’s okay to share with adults as if they were a room full of jr. highers. Short bomb-bursts of bite-size pieces seems to keep them engaged. This is why I believe the best senior pastors/teaching pastors are former youth pastors, they already know how to engage at this level. The people who don’t want this type of teaching are the ones looking for a college professor, not a pastor; and most of those are already educated beyond their obedience.”

  4. Thom what I appreciate about your post is not that you dismiss preaching but rather challenge us to rethink how we communicate big ideas in small chunks. I’m not even hearing you say sermons should be short (though maybe I’m wrong on that). Jesus as your suggested did extensive teaching often with a series of parables that directed us towards the same big idea. The somewhat recent return (starting with folks like John Stott) to more expositional preaching is something I’ve really appreciated in my own spiritual growth but have wrestled with how that plays out in my own teaching. The small chunks even in a larger message is helpful. One final thought, whose to say what “small chuck” the Holy Spirit wants to use anyones life at a given moment, if God uses just one piece of a teaching in a person life’s I thank God for His faithfulness.

  5. I am so very intrigued by this information, thanks!

  6. Thom: Do you have any examples that expand upon your examples about how an entire worship experience might be reconfigured to take advantage of the brain’s short attention span?

  7. How long do you stay engaged with a two hour movie? Do you listen to your boss when he speaks for longer than 6 minutes?

    • Dave, theatrical movies hold viewers’ attention because the picture, sound, characters, and visual viewpoints are constantly changing. Movies would not work if the camera remained static on a man speaking at a podium for two hours. That is precisely what the University of Rochester study demonstrated.

      And the second study I cited in the article came from the British business sector that needed to find how their managers and trainers could be more effective in their speaking. The research revealed their workers were not listening to their bosses when they spoke for longer than 5 minutes.

  8. Rick Warren is the master of this kind of teaching. If you ever get a chance, check out his preaching at saddleback.com

    • I remember reading in one of Rick Warren’s books about how how he consulted on the film, The Prince of Egypt, and how the filmmakers had created something like a storyboard where they intentionally created specific changes every so many minutes in a film to renew the viewer’s attention.

  9. I guess my question is: what responsibility do hearers in any situation (whether it is preaching or in the classroom) have for remaining engaged in what is being presented? This discussion usually seems to center around both attention span and learning styles and almost always deals exclusively with the person presenting information rather than those hearing it. Is the hearer responsible in any way for working to remain engaged in the material being presented? (This isn’t necessarily a disagreement with your points, just a desire to broaden the conversation to include the other half of the teaching/learning equation.)

    • I appreciate your questions, Tom. Yes, successful communication relies on both the sender and the receiver. But if I’m looking for greater communication effectiveness, I need to evaluate which levers I can realistically pull to make an improvement. Even if it would be accurate to say the receiver should remain engaged longer with my material, what good would realistically come from me spending time with that blame-shifting? Will people’s attention span increase if I just tell them it should increase?

      As a communicator, I can be much more successful adjusting my behavior than blaming someone else for their behavior.

      If I dismiss short attention spans as somebody else’s problem, nothing will improve in my effectiveness as a speaker. But if I work at how I can improve my end of the relationship, I’ll have a much greater likelihood of improved effectiveness.

  10. I’ve always had the image of keeping the cup full.

  11. John Medina, author of ‘Brain Rules’ and Director of Brain Center for Applied Learning Research found similar findings.

    Another company, Corporate Visions, cites neuroscience research that studied the brain’s receptivity in receiving messages. One of their experiments was to give people a long list of words, read through it once, then after having it taken away, they were to write every word they could remember. Their findings were quite interesting.

    In short, they found:

    • They could remember 70% of the first words, 20% of the middle and 100% of the words at the end of the list

    • When graphed, it looks quite a bit like a hammock, subsequently called the “Hammock Effect” with messages

    • This “hammock effect” is where the brain is initially engaged, but if the message sounds familiar, attentiveness drops…or basically goes to sleep through the heart of the message, then perks up again at the end when it detects the end [of the message] is near

    • They also found that the first opening minute is critical for a complete message to be listened to as the brain evaluates a person’s message in 10-second increments, determining if it should keep listening or not (fight or flight). In essence, the brain is listening for anything that may pose a threat. If it detects nothing to “stay awake” for, our brains determine they can go back to a restful state.

    In light of this research what intrigues me is if you were to apply the hammock effect to a sermon, and the congregation only remembers 70% of how it begins, and 100% of how it ends, what do they walk away remembering?

  12. We had a pastor who would pray for 12 minutes (my husband timed it) before he even started the sermon. So we all sat there, with our eyes closed, for 12 minutes! We were all half asleep before the sermon even began…

  13. In my personal time with God, when He speaks out of His word, God is very short and to the point…. usually a verse or two and pretty much one subject. That’s the one thing God has over pastors. He doesn’t have to fill a slot of time. He tells you exactly what you need to hear and when you need to hear it. Luckily for the most part, God usually speaks to me out of the first chapter I read so its not like I have to spend a whole lot of time reading and praying. So the problem of this attention span thing may be that pastors and teachers are brainwashed with having to fill this long slot of time and listeners expect this despite they can loose interest after a short time. I really think teachers and pastors need to follow God’s example. Keep it short and to-the-point and then have a big discussion time.

  14. I am really enjoying this thread. I recently attended at workshop by Christophe Morin of SalesBrain.com. They are in the “Neuromarketing” business. Similar to what @Jeff reported, Morin would say research shows we remember the “beginnings” and “ends” so have a strong opening, then (as attention is “waining”) make and support your 2 or 3 claims and finally have a strong close. In theory if one doesn’t “screw up” the 2-3 claims, they will be memorably enough to get their message across.

    What I also found interesting in Morin’s workshop was that his research had found/confirmed that there are about five other key ways to connect with people – “you-focused” language, using a prop, showing contrast, being visual and using emotion.

    What’s particularly of interest to preachers is that appealing to the frontal cortex wasn’t high on the effectiveness list.

    The implication? Keep it simple if you want your messages from God to be memorable.

  15. The sermon as we currently know it is the product of the Modernist era that produced the Reformation and subsequently the Enlightenment, with its focus on words – and particularly the printed word.
    If one reads out loud the sermons of John Chrysostom (which we have) none takes longer than 5 minutes.
    Many “scholars” read temporary practice back into biblical sermons: “Of course the sermon of Acts 2 is only a summary” – or is it?
    The past 40 years has produced a revolution in the way we process information. The role of the computer is obvious, but equally significant to education is the photocopier.
    We need to reconceptualise the sermon completely: the starting point is to understand the biblical terms – especially “paraklesis”, that embraces teaching, encouragement, comfort, challenge, and (to a certain extent) rebuke. The modernist shape of the sermon generally fails dismally in these areas. Other approaches need to be found.

  16. In the book, Brain Rules, by Prof John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, he has some great insights in how to jiggle the brain back on track. http://www.brainrules.net/attention/?scene=1

  17. I once timed the parables of Jesus with a stopwatch. Their average length? 38 seconds. Preachers, if Jesus was able to change the world in 38 seconds, what makes you think you need 38 minutes?

  18. I must disagree. The problem is what is being taught is not what the Bible actually says. Therefore it’s not true nor logical. It also is contradictory to science. Not to say all science is accurate,it isn’t. The sacred languages are not studied in depth by the teachers of the Bible. I’ve studied hebrew and greek for 20 years and what is taught in churches is not even remotely the truth. Every hebrew scholar knows this.

  19. Paul wrote on Facebook: “The model has not changed in over 100 years. The form of everything else in our lives has changed in that time, why not the church? The most powerful force in most congregations is inertia, not the gospel. I have no interest in getting people to “go to church.” I am much more concerned with the movement of Jesus Christ revolutionizing the world. With that said here’s my thoughts: 1. Get rid of denominations. The massive overhead and bureaucracy is counter productive. 2. Eliminate full time, professional clergy. This creates an artificial hierarchy that inhibits discipleship. 3. Discover new ways to engage people. Reading scripture to a highly literate, affluent culture makes no sense. We need to be hearing and sharing stories of how Jesus is changing lives today.”

  20. While your comment about 38 second parables is truly clever, Jesus did not change the world simply through a few parables. The Sermon on the Mount takes far longer to read than 38 seconds. His conversation with his disciples in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John stretches through five chapters. And then we have the lengthy sermons of Peter in Acts, Stephen’s sermon, Paul’s lengthy letters which were read aloud in churches we are told. I can read the New Testament in just a few hours, but Jesus lived far longer than the time it takes to read the New Testament, so it is obvious that his communication with his disciples involved more than the few sayings that were preserved by those who could remember them.

  21. Much of what is done in church isn’t based on the Bible or our biology. It’s an expression of Greek philosophy and closely resembles our Western education system, which is also Greek philosophy. Here are a few things to consider:

    1) Our education system is input-oriented; true learning is output-oriented. We don’t learn until we process and apply information. A sermon is a brain dump with little to no processing or output. True learning must be based around dialogue, hands-on and done in the context of relationships. Sermons don’t meet those qualifications, but Jesus’ teaching was based around those things.
    2) Our education system is geared towards training the mind; true learning begins with the heart. If you love, hate or are laughing, you can’t help but THINK about something. The heart is the engine of the mind. Unfortunately, many Bible teachers have been trained in academia, which bifurcates logic and reason and tends to focus on the objective (emotionless) presentation of facts. So, they’ve been trained to organize and present without emotion.
    3) Our education system is conceptual (cataloging information); but the best communication is sensory (pictures, sounds and sensations). This conceptual orientation is strong in Bible college and seminaries, where theology is systematized. But, the Bible is organized around stories, analogies and metaphor. It is filled with images and word pictures.
    4) God thinks deductively–having an understanding of the whole, which allows him to see how the parts fit together. Bible colleges and seminaries are based on the research methodologies of secular education, which are geared heavily towards inductive thinking (starting with the parts and moving towards the whole).
    5) God organizes things inductively–piece by piece revealing his will in the Bible. Bible college and seminary trains people to organize deductively–big ideas first (the whole) and support second (the parts). So, God thinks deductively and organizes inductively. The average Bible college or seminary graduate thinks inductively and organizes deductively.

    Realize, I am summarizing. A detailed look into all these points would require hundreds of pages. By summarizing, I’m also stating broad stroke trends. So, they are true for most, but not for all.

    I’ve been teaching college for over a decade. Young people hate lecture. The want true dialogue. They want relationship. They want to learn hands-on. They don’t want something based around a lifeless lecture, but that is what we’ve based church around. If you give them first-century discipleship, which is based around dialogue and hands-on learning in the context of relationship, they will come. If you give them the weekly big show, you’ll lose them and where will we be in a few short decades?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What is the optimal length of a sermon? « Jeff Gissing - February 3, 2014

    […] I can follow a 30-minute presentation fairly easily. However, I’m not most people. Over at Holy Soup, Thom Schultz shares data that suggest the optimal attention span for an aural presentation […]

  2. 2014.03.16 “The Spirit Will Lead” – John 3:1-17 | Skokie Central Church Sermons - March 21, 2014

    […] For example, I recently read recently an article about the status of our average attention span.  Due large to media, you know what the average attention span is today? About 6 minutes. That means, I got six minutes, before you start planning your lunch menu. (Thom Schultz, Lost After 6 Minutes, http://holysoup.com/2014/01/29/lost-after-6-minutes/) […]

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