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In the goldfish bowl

We’ve all had conversations with individuals who weren’t really “there.” You know the type; they appear to be paying attention but their eyes are darting all over the place. Or how about the people who in mid-conversation feel their cellphones vibrating and whip them out of their holsters – sorry, pockets — like gunslingers at high noon? Heaven forbid they should miss a Facebook notification.

Hundreds of computer apps. Countless TV channels. Twenty-four-hour programming. Twitter. Blogs. YouTube. Instagram. No wonder many of us have the attention span of a flea. OK, we’re exaggerating. Would you believe a goldfish? According to author Phil Simon in Message Not Received, a goldfish’s average attention span was nine seconds in 2013; the average American’s was eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000!

As Simon points out, email and social media enable you to communicate virtually around the clock. You can easily become a prisoner of your electronic devices. Engaging in meaningful dialogue is becoming a lost art. Young people are particularly vulnerable; they would rather text than pick up the phone or send a well thought-out email that contains actual paragraphs. Business executives and managers are often astounded when their college-educated employees write emails littered with grammatical and spelling errors.

So what’s the answer? How can you learn to improve your communication skills in the face of so many competing interests? How do you tune out the distractions long enough to cohesively process your thoughts?

“Those who want to succeed – even thrive – in an attention-deficit economy are masters of lean communication,” writes Joseph McCormack in the aptly-titled Brief. “When you want to get more, decide to say less.”

Don’t equate brevity with superficiality, McCormack advises. In a business setting, that means thinking carefully about what you want to say or write before doing it. Forget the fancy terminology; use plain, simple language that everyone can understand. Get to your point. Remember, people tune out quickly if you don’t grab their attention right away.

“When we fail to be clear and concise, the consequences can be brutal,” McCormack says.

Let’s face it – technology has permanently changed the landscape. We’re never going back to the days when there were just three major TV networks and newspapers were the go-to source for information. But living in the present doesn’t mean we have to concede to mediocrity. Effective communication is always going to be important – even if we are just a bunch of goldfish with smartphones.

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