Short-Attention Span Theatrics

"Curious George? Really, that's what you want? What are you, like, four years old or something?" When I was 12, my father took the four of us kids to a book store near the University of Michigan, presumably so he could check that box on his “Things I must do with the kids so I can tell people I did it” list.

Michael, 13, who would someday become a doctor, chose Grey’s Anatomy. Mary Beth, almost 11—who devoured books like the “Planet Killer” on Star Trek devoured planets (season 2, episode 6)—found and hugged a copy of Gone with the Wind. Marnie, picked Stuart Little. She had no intention of reading it, but even at eight she knew that by spiffing up Dad’s I-bought-all-my-kids-books story she would take the lead in the perpetual race for his affection.

But I didn’t want a book.

“You're getting a book.”

“I don’t want a book. Honest.”

“John, we’re not leaving this store until ... you … select … a  book.”

Today, a kid who disliked reading as much as I did would be screened for dyslexia and ADD. But back then the diagnosis was simply “he’s not a reader.” I was good at reading people, though, and I knew this book drive was less about my story-reading pleasure and more about Dad’s story-telling pleasure. He couldn’t check that box if I didn’t buy a book.

Out of frustration (and maybe a little spite), I chose The Big Book of Jokes and Riddles “recommended for kids from six to 99!” Hell, I fit the bill. And the book was made for me—it had lots of pictures, acres of white space, and short entries. The longest joke didn’t top 400 characters.

“That's really the book you want?”

“Yep.”

Three seconds of his withering death stare and then … checkmate. I win.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pioneer in the short-attention-span movement that would sweep the globe by the time my own kids were old enough to play me as well as I played my dad.

That movement declared victory this week when Yahoo! paid a teenager $30 million for an app called Summly which shrinks news articles down to 400-character summaries, turning everyone’s phone into The Big E-Book of News and Commentary.

In his press statement announcing the deal (which, I feel compelled to point out, ran far longer than 400 characters), 17-year-old inventor Nick D'Aloisio said,  “Our vision is to simplify how we get information.”

Simplify? Really? Have you ever thumbed through yards of Dewey Decimal drawers in search of the alpha-numeric code that would lead you to a distant bookshelf where the book you were looking for used to be hidden before it was checked out by someone else? Ever spent an evening squinting at news articles on microfiche desperate to finish your homework before the library closed? Ever try to write a term paper using the Encyclopedia Britannica as your Internet?

I didn’t think so.

The only way it could get easier to get information today is if it were injected straight into our brain ports Matrix style.

As a storyteller, it's important for you to understand how your audience consumes information. And these days, it's in tiny, flashy, bites. Folks aren't ordering Chateaubriand with Sauce Bernaise anymore. They want Pop Rocks and a large Coke--to go.

So give it to them. Spend some time crafting a compelling lede to hook them. Then edit your copy until it squeaks to keep them on the line. Then edit it again. And once you've made your point, stop writing.