Simplicity and sustaining attention

How simple language can keep your audience hooked.

Effective storytelling encourages understanding, retention and emotional engagement. These are the 3 pillars of genuine learning and subsequent behavioral impact. Underlying all of this, though, is something far more fundamental: attention. If you can’t sustain an audience’s attention, the downstream effects are rendered moot.

So I’d like to focus your attention for a minute or two on the concept of attention. In today’s culture of unyielding technological stimulation and social media updates, our collective attention span is, well, miniscule. In universities and educational institutions, you find lectures shortened to a glib 10-15 minutes, whereupon daydreams and distractions usually rear their heads. Given this backdrop, how can we, as communicators and storytellers, maintain audiences’ attention?

Simple! Use clear and simple language!

While more complex, jargon-infused sentences have their place – e.g. when communicating to those that share a base of very specific knowledge—to reach broader audiences, simplicity is key. Take the following example:

“The observed single-cell heterogeneity in genome organization challenges the traditional view of gene regulation, which assumes that the epigenetic landscape controlling gene activity is largely stable.”[1]

If you have a specialized scientific background or a unique propensity for cellular genomics, the above may seem clear. In this case its complexity would actually be necessary for accurate communication. But this isn’t the case in most settings. Most people’s attention would’ve likely waned somewhere within the first three to four words, along with emerging thoughts of lunch.

Which is to say: when we aren’t dealing with esoteric audiences, complexity is subversive and plain language is key. Take, for example, this unnecessarily complex statement on mass lay-offs made by Citigroup back in 2012:

“Citigroup today announced a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency across the company while maintaining Citi's unique capabilities to serve clients, especially in the emerging markets. These actions will result in increased business efficiency, streamlined operations and an optimized consumer footprint across geographies.”[2]

As Derek Thompson hilariously noted in his coeval article for The Atlantic, this effectively amounts to saying:

“Citigroup today announced [lay-offs]. These actions will [save money].”

By gratuitously introducing jargon and multisyllabic words to an announcement that required neither, Citigroup muddled its message and likely lost its people’s attention wholly (to their credit, this may have in fact been the whole point).

When sentences are difficult to understand or require additional focus to grasp, attention inevitably wanes. We are after all, competing with buzzing phones and alerts of incoming texts, tweets and package deliveries. To capitalize on the small window of attentional opportunity we’re afforded, we can and must convey our message simply and plainly, taking the mental burden off our readers and listeners so they can process exactly what we’re saying.


[1] Finn, Elizabeth H., and Tom Misteli. “Molecular Basis and Biological Function of Variability in Spatial Genome Organization.” Science, vol. 365, no. 6457, 2019 [2] Thompson, Derek. “Citigroup Eliminates 11,000 Jobs in History's Most Corporate-Jargony Paragraph Ever.” The Atlantic, 5 Dec. 2012,