Continuous Partial Attention and Technology Conference Sessions.

Go to a technology conference today and you will see that technology has substantially changed the way that delegates pay attention within sessions. The first time I presented at TechED it was a rarity to see anyone in the audience using a laptop when you were presenting a session.  This made sense as laptop battery lifetime was at best a couple of hours and if you were spending the whole day at a conference, you couldn’t use the laptop for more than a session or two before draining the battery.

Today when I present, or watch others present, almost everyone is tapping away at a laptop, fiddling with a tablet, or interacting with their phone. This happens even when the speaker is awesome, so isn’t just a matter of poor speakers and bored delegates. Even when the most dynamic presenter is on stage, and the attendees have paid great money to hear insightful expositions of complex technologies, most can’t go more than a few minutes without opening up some gadget, checking their e-mail, or interacting with their social media stream.

Whereas a presenter 5 years ago could be relatively assured of appearing to have the majority of the audience’s undivided attention, today at best they are getting the what has been termed as the audience’s “Continuous Partial Attention.”

To quote Steven Johnson

“[Continuous partial attention] … usually involves skimming the surface of incoming data, picking out the relevant details, and moving on to the next stream. You’re paying attention, but only partially.”

Delegates are still following what’s been said and consuming the information that’s being presented, they just don’t have to use their complete attention to do so.

Continuous partial attention differs from multitasking in that the process is ongoing rather than episodic. Multitasking is about being more efficient by doing multiple tasks that require little in the way of cognitive processing. For example, listening to an audiobook whilst driving a car. Continuous partial attention involves paying partial attention on a continuous basis. Listening to a presenter speak, watching a demo, whilst also reading a technical article on a completely different topic.

There are a couple of theories about as to why continuous partial attention, rather than full attention, is becoming more prevalent in conference audiences. Some suggest that that this and future generations simply don’t have the attention spans of the “old timers”. That an old-timer could sit through a 60 minute session with nothing to concentrate on but the presenter, but that someone from Gen-Y would get antsy and uncomfortable in the same situation.
My thought is that rather than it being an issue of attention span, what’s really going on is that delegates are used to consuming information more voraciously. That at best the amount of information that can be presented by the best presenter at a technology conference session is a trickle, when in their day to day lives IT professionals are used to consuming information by “drinking from the firehose”.

Just as you can read far more quickly than someone can speak (a great example is novels, which might take 3-4 hours to read, but take an audiobook narrator 20 hours to get through in spoken format) – it might be that the amount of information that can be conveyed by even the best speaker in a breakout session on a per-minute basis is substantially below the amount that can be absorbed by the most attentive delegate.

Next time you’re in a session at a conference and you notice everyone around you seems to be concentrating on about six things at once, realize it isn’t necessarily about the presenter, but that the format itself might not be the most effective way to communicate complex data to an audience that has become voracious in its ability to consume information.

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