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Drawing your attention


A GOOD LEADER or speaker can draw and hold the attention of those around him. Are his explanations and hortatory appeal being given due interest? Do they elicit a yawn or a standing ovation of applause?

It is seen as a sign of intelligence, and helpful later in a successful career, when a child exhibits a long and sustained “attention span.” The opposite of this habit of closely paying attention is considered a learning disability, termed as “attention deficit,” displayed by a child never completing an activity, getting easily distracted and moving hurriedly from one unfinished task to another.

Attentive listening can stave off ennui and the onslaught of sleep in the classroom. A good listener is prized for being able to respond to even the most jejune narrative with a quick summary or an intelligent question at the very least — can you repeat the last part, Teacher?

Putting the burden of paying attention on the listener, or “consumer,” is no longer appropriate. Now, attention must be earned. It is a currency that is paid to the supplier that can provide only the most compelling content or experience. Even a short TikTok segment needs to be compelling.

The challenge to the supplier (or seller) of any experience is to keep the consumer’s attention engaged. It is said that the attention span of the most attractive market segment (age 18-28) is a mere six seconds. The compulsion to stay with some content offering must be quickly earned within that time span. The smart phone is designed to zap out boredom with a tap on the screen or a swipe to the right — time’s up.

Attention, however, is not always sought.

Sometimes, the goal of an organization is to move “under the radar” and try not to draw unwanted attention to itself. Disclosure is part of the regulatory landscape. So, an unfavorable turn of events can be hidden from bad news hunters by sticking to a boring narrative.

The launching of an unnecessary sovereign fund with all its attendant risks and concentration of power may have attracted too much unwanted attention too early. It was best not to have an individual associated with it and accuse the critics of ignorance — have you read all 30 pages of the bill including the fine print? (Which version, Sir?) Anyway, the compelling argument seems to be the strength of the majority vote.

For sure, news items and scandals of all sorts have a natural fatigue factor. The public loses interest even with assassinations of journalists, unwarranted convictions and detentions of celebrities for sexual harassment, or the dealing of drugs by children of the wealthy and powerful.

In the fight for attention, not all the apps and videos available on the phone or other screens can be savored. Algorithms are used to check previous selections and offering more of the same genre to ensure holding the attention of a specific individual. Even frequently visited sites are logged to provide a profile of the viewer whose engagement is being sought. This is called by digital analysts as “stickiness.”

Someone often seeking items on “frog’s legs” is sure to attract the algorithm to offer more of the same, like how frog’s legs can be spread and eaten efficiently.

Attention-seeking is part of the social scene. The ordinary conversation over dinner is not meant to always amuse and delight. It provides a routine that stabilizes life’s journey. It defies the laws that apply to the “attention economy.” With a regular set of friends, the same topics are covered. They include recent championships, corporate scandals involving acquaintances, and problems with household help and various illnesses and afflictions.

There are no slides or visuals, only hand gestures and expletives complete with some table-pounding. There is no interruption (get to the point) for even a meandering presentation full of digressions. No touch screen can switch the channel. Repetition is allowed. And nobody directs who the next speaker should be— she is still staring at her soup.

The routine of life, so ordinary and repetitive, gives pleasure and demands attention. Conversations on small things we can change and big things (like the price of rice) we cannot are a lifeboat in the tossing sea of attention grabbers.

And when suddenly asked for an opinion, it is all right to say… sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda

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