A widely quoted Microsoft study from 2015 tried to tell the world that the time an average person is able to concentrate on a particular subject has fallen to 8 (eight!) seconds. Which is less than the average attention span of a goldfish.

Image by Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Although the goldfish comparison has been recited by many media and has been (mis)used by marketers to reduce their outreach to twitter-style messaging, it makes little sense – IMHO even no sense at all. Because the world of a goldfish ends at the rim of the glass bowl it’s floating in. Your audience aren’t carp. They are real people with unmet needs and innate curiosity. I know no single business person that would be satisfied with only 140-character content or an eight-second presentation. My personal experience as a public speaker actually tells me that you’ve got at least 15 to 20 minutes before you start losing (some) people’s interest. A number that resonates with the ’20’ figure in Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint.

On the other hand, as observed by Nobel prize and Turing award winner Herbert Simon: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” It’s not the number of slides or the detail of the content that determines their attentiveness to your audience. Human interest and attention span are determined by their daily problems, their current mood, and the persuasive power of the presenter. Nearly 9 respondents out of 10 to a Prezi survey acknowledged that a strong narrative and the story behind what’s being presented are critical in maintaining engagement.

Here are a few practical tips to keep, refresh or prolong the attention of your audience:

  • Keep your talk short and crisp, and make sure that the first minutes include any material that you want people to remember;
  • Intrigue, surprise or provoke: ask questions, do a quiz or launch a poll;
  • Pause a few seconds before showing a slide or presenting a key message, to create a sense of anticipation. Pause right after a key point to allow it to sink in.
  • Repeat the point for those who may have wandered, and summarize your key messages at regular times (and certainly at the end of your presentation);
  • Do something emotionally relevant, e.g. tell a joke or bring an anecdote;
  • Switch the medium: draw on a whiteboard, show a video, run a short demo;
  • Change the speaker. If you really have so many important things to tell, just consider bringing a colleague to offload part of your speech to.

tl;dr is internet slang for too long; didn’t read. It’s often used on online discussion forums or in the comments section of an article to say that some text was ignored because of its length. A less diplomatic definition on suggests that the acronym is frequently used by lazy, ignorant people, when something exceeds their ability to read or when they lack the semantic capacity to comprehend or respond to a post.

The title of this blog post, tl;dl, is a variant to the above letterword, and stands for too long; didn’t listen. If you don’t want your listeners to be goldfish, you’d better make sure that your presentations are not tl;dl. Make sure that your presentation is to the point, that your words are worth listening to, and that you present with passion and persuasion.