You have eight seconds

The social-fed human attention span now clocks in at eight seconds. A goldfish has a nine-second attention span.[1] Pity the graduate assistant tasked to calculate the attention span of …

Aww, kitty.[2]

Yet organizations advocating complex health care topics are too often last to recognize this fact. It is as though the developers of such information believe the people they are trying to persuade are as knowledgeable and as energized about their field as they are.

What if they’re not?

Regulators, legislators, staff, investors, they are all trying to do a job. They are trying to implement statutes, conduct oversight, write bills that will be well-received by their constituencies, help their bosses achieve their professional and political objectives, make money, look good and move up the ladder. They may not know your material as well as you. But they may well perceive initial complexity as obfuscation, as a lack of clear evidence, or as a lack of clear thinking.

The person you are seeking to persuade may see your message – and find it TL;DR.[3]

Strategic communication of complex health care topics demands consideration for the human beings that the content is intended to reach and persuade:

1.       Begin with the end in mind. What are you trying to do and how does it support your organizational strategy? Many advocacy initiatives unwisely skip this crucial step.

2.       Define and model your audiences. Most advocacy campaigns have several audiences. In addition to the policymakers one is trying to persuade, health care industry campaigns frequently consider their audiences to be (1) external – specific opinion leaders, experts, patients, customers, future investors and members and (2) internal – investors, a board, executives, members and staff.

3.       Map your channels and their timing. By what means do your audiences need to receive your information to make your case, when, and at what frequency? The 21st Century has exploded the number of available channels. But often the most effective channel is a face-to-face meeting, featuring someone with expert authority and someone who knows the process for the decision being made. And by “meeting,” that includes preparation, speaking, listening and evaluation.[4]  

4.       Map your messages – and their counters, and your counter-counters. Who needs to know what information in order to do what they can do for your organization? Does your message persuade?[5] What is the best medium for getting the information across – words on paper or a screen, a table, a visual image, video?

5.       Map your resources for success. Expect that the signal to noise ratio in any decisionmaker’s inbox is beyond ridiculous. Do the decisionmakers on your issue have surround-sound in favor of your message objective? Has your plan invested in the channels and programs your decisionmakers will hear?[6] If not, do your stakeholders agree why not?

6.       Plan a quality feedback loop from the beginning.  Is what you are doing working? Being noticed? By the right people? How do you know? Of many possible process and outcome measurements of advocacy effectiveness,[7] invest time defining measurements that are actionable that would change your campaign one way or the other.

Effective advocacy may be your organization’s primary mission, or critical to achieving its objectives. Are you communicating effectively so that you can be heard and heeded?


Frank Talk is a product of Cardinal Waypoint LLC, a new consultancy for health policy and leadership. Contact us here.



[1] Gaulsby A. Attention spans. Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015. Retrieved 2/20/2018. Some suggest it’s hogwash, including Buck S. The myth of the 8-second attention span. Entrepreneur, Aug. 3, 2017. Retrieved 2/20/2018.

[2] Mashup Zone. Top ten funny cat videos – funny cats 2017. Retrieved 2/20/2018. It had already been viewed more than 22.7 million times.

[3] The Urban Dictionary definition is ten years old., retrieved 2/20/2018.

[4] One of my favorite guides to influence is Cialdini R B. Influence: the psychology of persuasion, revised edition. 2007., retrieved 2/20/2018.

[5] The literature makes a case for evidence-based advocacy. For example, Storeng K and Behague D. Playing the numbers game: evidence-based advocacy and the technocratic narrowing of the Safe Motherhood Initiative. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, March 6, 2014., retrieved 2/20/2018. However, they do not account for modern tribal tendencies in U.S. politics which are well-documented. For example, Pew Research Center. Political typology reveals deep fissures on the right and left. Pew Charitable Trusts, Oct. 24, 2017., retrieved 2/20/2018.

[6] For example, if your advocacy objective demands the attention of President Trump, how is your message playing on Fox & Friends? Gertz M. I’ve studied the Trump-Fox feedback loop for months. Politico Magazine, Jan. 5, 2018., retrieved 2/20/2018.

[7] For example, Forti M. Measuring advocacy – yes we can. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jul. 25, 2012., retrieved 2/20/2018.

Frank PurcellComment