Blog Post

Communicating through distraction

This morning I attended a fascinating breakfast seminar about distraction. It was called ‘Neuroscience of Distraction: Managing Distraction and Maintaining Focus’, and was presented by Geoff Grahl from Australian Aeorspace. The organiser was NeuroLeadership Solutions.

Geoff made several comments about distraction that resonated strongly for me. For example:

  • The more information we receive, the more likely we are to be distracted (this reminds me of Richard Wurman’s book ‘Information Anxiety’).
  • When we are distracted from a task at work, only 41% of us actually return to the original task.
  • We’re not successful multi-taskers … that is, we can’t do several things at once. Rather, we parallel task by rapidly switching between tasks.
  • When we switch between tasks, there is a ‘switch cost’ – particularly in terms of time and accuracy.
  • When we feel overwhelmed by work and have trouble prioritising tasks, this becomes a distraction in itself.

Geoff asked us to complete a little activity during his presentation, by keeping a tally of our ‘focussed distractions’ (what he said just made me think of …) and our ‘unfocussed distractions’ (the bar behind him is very well stocked …). For me, the activity itself was a distraction (and maybe that was partly the point). The time taken to notice the distraction, put a mark on my tally sheet, and then focus back on listening, was too much for me … I decided that I’d be less distracted without the activity.

As communicators, we deal in the business of distraction. Ultimately, we want to distract our audiences away from their current work/thoughts and towards the thing that we’re communicating about. At the same time, we seek to communicate in such a way that other distractions (things that are not relevant to our message) can easily be ignored. We constantly shout ‘listen to me’ while we whisper ‘ignore them’.

Within our messages, distraction is also relevant. It makes sense to limit the things that will distract from our main message – perhaps by avoiding moving or flashing visuals on our website, perhaps by avoiding design clutter, and perhaps by avoiding content that doesn’t really contribute to the main message.

I’m keen to learn more about distraction … both in terms of how I can manage distractions in my day-to-day work, and in terms of how I can create communication tools that limit the potential for audience distraction (things that are so engaging that people will remain focused!).