One of the great difficulties in effective communication is that to be a great messenger you need more than something important to say or the capacity to say something well. Your most important act is to win the attention
of those who you want to receive the message. Without that, your effort goes for naught.
Attention is actually a scarce commodity
. While we like to attribute that to living in an age of cell phones, PDA's, the internet, 500 channel cable TV, video games, treos, blackberries ad nauseum, I suspect that we are exaggerating their collective effect and that inattentiveness and a proclivity to distraction is our natural state. We like to imagine that in the past, we had a simpler, more solemn and focused age. Well, at the Lincoln-Douglas Debates
, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas spoke before crowds of up to 20,000 - who milled about, coughed, laughed, cheered, jeered, engaged in conversation, hollared, smoked, spat, ate food, held wailing babies, argued, fought with fists, tended horses and meandered about drunk. As one historian put it
:"At some of the debates there were no ladies present, but at others, they were there and given the only seats that were available except for the Conestoga wagons and the covered wagons that some of the people arrived on. People sat on their wagons. It makes one wonder how many people actually heard the speeches and how many people were out for the celebration. You know, you had ice cream being consumed and picnic barbecues, liquid refreshment -- a lot of liquid refreshment -- fights breaking out in the back of the auditorium, the back of the crowds, a cannon being fired off. Douglas traveled with his own cannon. That was the only amplification around. He traveled with a brass cannon, and his supporters were instructed to fire it every time he got off a good point against Lincoln. So there was lots of noise, lots of crowd yelling and cheering and booing and talking back, nothing like the debates today where our candidates make such an intentional and careful effort to take the high ground and to be very calm and not answer. Negatives and fighting and audience attacks were part of the game."
Not quite the school textbook image. I have to wonder how many people heard even half of what was said, given that these debates ran for three hours straight. Lincoln's propensity for jokes, irreverence and colorful stories for which he was sometimes criticized, as unbefitting the dignity of his office, were learned on the stump as devices to entertain and win the crowd's attention. The fact that sound bites on TV have grown more effective as they have been made shorter
is a poor indication of what the actual average American attention span might be.
As poorly as we sometimes are at paying attention extrospectively - we could benefit far more by greater attention or some old fashioned Zen "mindfulness
" being directed inward. Metacognitive regulation
requires an introspective monitoring of one's thoughts and ideas, which means active, conscious, effort to pay attention. This requires practice to sustain for any length of time though on the other extreme, master Yogis and Zen monks have exhibited the ability to effect significant physiological changes
through meditative concentration. Having acquired sufficient attention to engage in metacognition, we can begin to select our cognitive frames
and approach problems with greater discrimination and conscious choice, rather than being driven frantically by events, simply reacting.
It pays to pay attention.