You’ve probably seen the claim, but is it really true that our attention spans are becoming shorter than that of a goldfish? Last year, the presentation software company called Prezi released its2018 State of Attention Report, focusing on the question of what is going on with the attention span of typical Americans. As covered by an article in in Entrepreneur Magazine, the report makes the argument that attention spans aren’t actually shrinking, they’re evolving. The report begins by posing the riddle of why we’re okay binging a show like Stranger Things for six hours or more, but we still struggle to keep our attention focused on a 20-minute presentation.

Based on a survey of more than 2000 professionals in the business world, the report argues that we are becoming more selective and better at tuning out unnecessary details, but also better at tuning in to the most engaging details. As the report argues, “Just like a binge-worthy television series, the golden ticket to engaging content is a compelling narrative combined with stimulating visuals and dialogue. Together, this trio is what manages to capture and hold attention, in and out of the workplace.” In the courthouse, of course, attention can be both essential and fickle. Jurors have to sustain their focus throughout the day and will only sometimes have the aid of a great story or a visual. In this post, I will comment on the implications of evolving attention.

Account for Over-confidence

One finding that the survey doesn’t really acknowledge is that those they surveyed seem to be pretty confident about their own abilities to focus their attention. According to the Prezi survey, 59 percent of business professionals believe that they can give a piece of content their undivided attention more than they could one year ago. Nearly half (49 percent) say that they are more selective about the content they consume than they were a year ago. And a whopping 95 percent of professionals say they multitask during meetings and seem to view that ability as a kind of badge of honor. Whether they actually are effectively multitasking, efficiently selecting their content, and truly focusing their attention is something that would need to be tested in ways other than a self-report survey, but there are reasons to be skeptical of the claims: Believing that we’re good multi-taskers is different from actually being good multitaskers. So one implication is that your jurors might have more confidence in their attention than is warranted. A seriousness of purpose and their oath might keep them engaged for awhile, but without effective help, attention is likely to wane.

Account for the Visual Edge

Adding frequent and varied visuals to your presentation works by re-engaging attention and by maintaining focus in a different way. A third (33 percent) in the survey reported that visual stimulation is critical to maintaining their attention, and 79 percent say animated visuals are effective in keeping audiences focused. Our own research, the Persuasion Strategies “Visual Persuasion Study,” showed that the best way to engage an audience is through continuous or “immersive” uses of graphics, meaning that the verbal message is always or nearly always accompanied by a visual reinforcement: They should always have something to look at. Accompanying openings, closings, and expert direct examination with slides that include simple and easily processed visual messages is one of the best ways to counter attentional drift.

Account for the Benefits of Story

Naturally, what keeps our eyes glued to the screen while binging on Netflix is the story: We are drawn to the characters, the conflict, and the overall plot. While attorneys cannot necessarily recreate all of that in the context of a courtroom trial, they can frame their case around some of these basic dramatic elements. In the Prezi survey, 90 percent of business professionals say that a strong narrative or story behind a presentation is key to maintaining audience engagement.

Adapt to Millennials

One might think that “digital natives” might have the easiest time handling our more distracted current existence. However, the survey suggests that millennials may have the biggest challenges with distraction. Ninety percent of millennials answering the survey say that during their most recent presentation they attended, they shifted their attention at some point away from the speaker. More than a third say that they only pay attention to dynamic content or information that carries a strong and relevant theme and story. To the Prezi authors, this difference suggests that modern communicators should try and tap into that perspective. “Businesses should look to millennials to help them create content that reflects the way people, both by choice and necessity, consume information today.”

While I can’t say that jurors’ attention spans rival that of a goldfish, or that attention is necessarily evolving (versus deteriorating) based on modern media habits, but what remains true is that attention in court should never be taken as a given. The basic tools — narrative engagement and a visual component — remain more important than ever.