General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

As the father of a lot of small, messy children, I easily listen to two hours of podcasts a day while cleaning (how my parents’ generation cleaned before podcasts I have no idea). The other day a movie producer on a podcast made a comment about how, in the days before streaming, television producers would look at what other shows were running during their same spot to know who they were competing against, whereas now movie and television producers are faced with the fact that whatever they make is competing against everything that was ever made.  

For the most part, I think this development is good. I think it has democratized our attention spans; no longer are we beholden to the views of a few middle aged guys on the large news networks, and the intense competition has forced the entertainment industry to sharpen their craft (I won’t launch into the whole argument about whether things were better back in the day, suffice it to say that for me personally a surprising number of the classic films of yesteryear seem like B-grade Netflix releases now; their appeal is more from nostalgia than objectively high production quality). 

While it is common to bemoan what Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to our attention spans (the irony of writing this on the now aged medium of a blog is not lost on me), the narrowing of our attention spans has forced content producers to get to the point. An assignment every first year college writing class should assign is the Hemingway exercise (or word golf, it goes by a number of different names): you write a paper, then assign the students to cut the number of words in half without losing any of the substance. After they’ve sweat and killed some of their babies, you ask them to do it again.. (and now I’m very self-aware about how long this post is), and you learn how much superfluousness is in our communications. 

The increasingly valuable real estate of our long-term attention is facing decreasing supply at the same time it’s facing increasing demand from the increase in content producers. As such, communicators are forced to cut the fat and immediately get to the essence of the thing, and as a person who shlogged through way too many Great Works of Western Literature that could have benefitted from the Hemingway Exercise, I generally see this as a good thing. Life is short, and there is so much that is self-evidently great that is out there without having to convince myself that hundreds of pages of mundane description actually have some deep meaning that I can unlock if I sacrifice enough of my time, or spend time trying to understand tedious “deepities” that use big words and lengthy text to hide what is, at its core, superficial. I’m done with naked emperors. 

However, I also sympathize with the curmudgeons. The fact is that not everything can be boiled down to a Tweet or even a blogpost (Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”) While the gospel is intellectually simple (a good thing, in my opinion, although some try to make it unnecessarily complicated), it’s useful to hit the important things from multiple perspectives, and gospel learning through the spirit often requires long focus. (However, the Church has read the tea leaves on this, and now you can get much briefer spiritual shorts from General Authorities that, while designed to be more digestible for our 21st century attention spans, can still pack a punch. Additionally, some of the short form non-General Authority content that the Church puts out can be quite powerful; I especially recommend the Church’s His Grace series that they have put out on their YouTube channel). 

While people might see declining General Conference views as a sign of a declining Church (I actually don’t have any numbers, but I assume views are declining, I might be wrong), the fact is that everyone’s views are declining. It’s not that the Church’s share of our attention space is declining because of this or that error (although there might be some of that), but mostly that, because everything is competing against everything else, television ratings for what’s considered a popular show are a fraction of what they were when you had a handful of options every night, so it would make sense that General Conference is swimming against the same tide. 

Some people might argue that it then follows that General Conference should try to pep things up, and to some extent there are basic principles of good communications that should be followed to make it more appealing (you can definitely tell when somebody is relying too much on the teleprompter, for example). However, at the end of this day we’re just not going to win this battle on those terms. General Conference will always be less immediately appealing for the vast majority of people than Game of Thrones, and that’s fine. I’m okay with using a little appeal to personal experience to say that if you try the fruit of General Conference, and give it some real, sincere attention and consideration, as rare as that is becoming for some of us, you will open yourself up to the divine touching you more deeply than any buzz that you get from scrolling the Twitter feeds of people who agree with you. 

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23 comments for “General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

  1. My challenge with general conference, and church services in general, is that they are 100% auditory. Even pre-media evolution, I never did auditory learning well. I’m hugely visual, as are many,, many others. I don’t ever just sit and watch a tv screen. I watch and scroll. Or watch and read. Or watch and clean, etc.

    Conference is fine because I get a ton of small projects done at the same time and am able to listen/retain. I struggle with church because I have to just passively sit there and I usually walk away having retained almost nothing, partly because there’s rarely anything worth retaining. (I tried small crafting projects during church which solved this, but it bothered other people and the hunching forward hurt my back. )

    Either way, I’d love a church experience that was less auditory and more visual and kinetic. Conference too.

  2. GC has felt different to me for several years now. No idea why. Maybe it is Pres. Nelson and his love for changing things. Maybe its me. The church today feels like it is not the one I grew up in. If it were not for the music I would probably never watch GC live and only read the talks. They would have my vote if we changed it to 2 hours each day. I would miss the music tho.

  3. There are many times, the word of God and peace of the Gospel ignited my heart during General Conference, and I pray that it does so for every humble seeker again this year.

    At the same time, I am tired of the guilt trips, the judgement, the tone deafness, the cultural insensitivity, the condescension to LGBT+ persons and working women and anyone who doesn’t conform, the vague, clumsy, and impossible calls to repentance that wreck psychological havoc, the inane repetitiveness and intellectual laziness, the pedantic, legalistic justifications for policy, etc.

    The complaints above I attribute to the human fingerprints of sincere, but privileged and protected (bubbled) servants.

  4. @lehcarjt:I can totally relate. I very rarely just watch anything without working on something in the background. For me growing up General Conference was tree pruning or housecleaning time while it was booming in the background in every room. However, my wife came from a sit-down-and-watch-all-10 hours background, which seems a bit much with little kids, so we’re still trying to figure that out.

    @Rec911: I have a similar experience; it does feel different than when I was a teenager, but like you I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but I can speculate: whether it’s me changing with the attention span issues above, the expectations I bring into coming in (I’ve been guilty, along with a lot of others, of looking towards the buzz from the big announcement more than the spiritual uplift), or the fact that President Hinckley was a better public speaker than his two successors (that kind of ebbs and flows, Elder Maxwell is another one that comes to mind, and I heard the President McKay was similar to Hinckley in that regard). Maybe a combination.

    @ Mortimer: I suspect we disagree on a lot of fundamentals, but in this post I have no desire to tsk tsk, I’d just hope that with General Conference you watch it holistically. The hot button social issue talks that, thanks to the Twitterverse and bloggernacle, come to define a conference session, are often a minute fraction of the total when you sit down and watch it from end to end. Most of it deals in the kind of spiritual fundamentals that I think are pretty non-controversial to most members. So even with disagreements there’s a lot of take away from it.

  5. Stephen, the people in charge of General Conference have a lot of resources at their disposal and I’m sure they’ll come up with something to deal with contemporary media environments and consumption practices.

    Where I’m not willing to compromise is sacrament meetings. People – most particularly the not quite full-grown people sitting next to me in the pew – need to put their phones down and learn to find value in rituals they’ve seen hundreds of times and talks that are inexpertly prepared and delivered by people who aren’t experts, because that’s the whole point. I have planted my flag on this hill and I’m willing to go down defending it.

  6. Finding that you can watch it later on doublespeed was a dangerous discovery for me… makes it hard to sit through the original speed

  7. Stephen C,
    We’ve been conversing on the this and other blogs for years, and I was taken aback by your response to me.

    “@ Mortimer: I suspect we disagree on a lot of fundamentals, …”

    Wow. Sounded like a smack down. Are you insinuating that my fundamentals or your fundamentals are deficient? Hmmmmm. Ouch, friend!

    “I’d just hope that with General Conference you watch it holistically.” Oh wow. You sound so paternal, so condescending to me. First you insulted my fundamentals, now you are throwing me under the spiritual bus. Stephen C., let’s get back into a civil groove.

    “The hot button social issue talks that, thanks to the Twitterverse and bloggernacle, come to define a conference session, are often a minute fraction of the total when you sit down and watch it from end to end.”
    That’s sometimes the case, but there are also hot topics that roll through themes throughout sessions, or even administrations and decades.

  8. I could see the value in 10 hours of conference in years past as it was one of the few opportunities available to hear from the apostles and prophet. But with online availability of talks, firesides, Facebook posts, etc. we are able to access them frequently. I think cutting back to fours hours of really meaningful conference instead of 10 hours of repetition would be great.

  9. General Conference is simply a time for families and friends to gather and barbecue. The speakers are on in the background. We are grateful for church leaders but there is no need to dress in Sunday best and sit glued to the screen. We’ll read the talks several times anyway. FYI, steak this Saturday and smoked chicken on Sunday. Hurrah!

  10. Back before satellite broadcasts, a local TV station in Nashville (where I lived) would replay one of the Saturday sessions on Sunday morning. (We got the April 6, 1980 Sunday morning session from Fayette, NY live as an exception.) My parents expected us to sit still in church clothes for those two hours.

    Fast forward to my parents being grandparents – Conference would be on cable TV, and while they’d have it on, they wouldn’t necessarily expect everyone to watch it, let alone in church clothes.

    Now that five general sessions looks to be the norm (at least Saturday evening is an hour and a half), I don’t know how I’d do it if I had kids.

  11. “People – most particularly the not quite full-grown people sitting next to me in the pew – need to put their phones down and learn to find value in rituals they’ve seen hundreds of times and talks that are inexpertly prepared and delivered by people who aren’t experts, because that’s the whole point.”

    I don’t get this? I mean the 10 minutes of taking the sacrament, yes. But other than that, what is it that you define as being the point of all the passively sitting there? Sacrifice is the only thing that comes to mind and it seems a pretty weak form of sacrifice. I’m probably missing your point though.

  12. One word: BORING. With one exception: MUSIC. Worst part of GC: Obnoxious Repetition – In the same Monotonous Tone. (Which is great for those who suffer from Insomnia) Honestly, I get much for “spiritual uplift” by simply listening to the Tabernacle Choir broadcast on Sunday morning. And, it’s only 30 minutes long!!

  13. Sitting is passive. Listening, pondering and seeking the value in another person’s offering of their time and effort, formulated to the best of their ability, is an active exercise of Christian service that needs to be cultivated. We try to find meaning and value in the other person’s contribution out of love and respect, not because they’re great speakers or because we deserve to be entertained. That was my point.

    It doesn’t seem possible for General Conference to be simultaneously boring and filled with moments of culture-war outrage. One would seem to exclude the other. At a minimum, the differing perspectives suggest that General Conference can be received in multiple ways – so perhaps members of the church should try approaching it as the good word of God as given to his servants and urgent reminders of important teachings, some of which are especially relevant to others and some of which are especially relevant to us personally.

  14. We have never dressed up for Conference. Growing up it was on in the background on Saturdays, and then the adults watched it on Sundays, and made the kids watch a different number of talks based on their age. While at BYU I developed the habit of watching every session live, and I still do. It’s hard for me to watch it not live. My dad made a comment about how until a few years ago all of his neighbors would have Conference on in the background while doing yard work on Saturdays, but something shifted a few years ago to where everyone now sits down and watches all of the sessions live. So if anything the experience with his ward members has shifted in the opposite direction of this post.

  15. Well, Jonathan–the arbiter of the appropriateness of all things and the one who determines whether a practice is correct or not–has spoken. The thinking must be done….

    Here is the problem with sacrament meetings: the endless repetition of General Conference talks. I can count on one hand the number of talks in my ward over the past year that did not consist mainly of a barely annotated recitation of a GC address. I do not expect everyone to be polished orators, but I would much rather hear someone talk about a doctrinal issue from their perspective than simply regurgitating a talk from someone else. The same holds true for EQ/RS meetings–the correlated, LCD approach to lessons (especially with the extra layer of repetition) completely undermines the appeal of the second hour.

    As for General Conference, it is not about attention span as much as it is about the monotony of tone, the predictability of topic, and the unending self-referential statements that really detract from the experience and make it hard to take. I can usually make it through a session or two, but five just about kills me. Fortunately, at least in the October conferences, I have football games playing simultaneously which helps keep me balanced.

  16. Most of the GAs have very little of interest to talk about. Pres. Eyring is famous for this. Most of his talks are very forgettable, and few are ever referenced or quoted. It’s ironic, because his father was a brilliant scientist. Talks on the interface between science and religion would be greatly appreciated and certainly timely. An annual report from Sharon Eubanks on LDS Charities would be nice. Non-GA talks from members like Richard Bushman would be of great interest. How about a little variety at GC? The Church is full of bright, religious, articulate members who have wonderful stories to tell.

  17. When Moroni worried about the quality of the writing in the Book of Mormon and feared that latter-day gentiles would mock it rather than benefit from it, the Lord reminded him that “my grace is sufficient for all men” and promised that if the gentiles would humble themselves and have faith “then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” I take that to mean that the literary weaknesses of the Book of Mormon are okay because if people approach it with the right attitude the Spirit will teach them more than the book itself. Then the Book of Mormon becomes a “strong thing unto them” after all.

    I can’t deny that sometimes General Conference talks as well as the talks and lessons in our local units start out as “weak things” but I’m confident the same promise applies.

    (Yes, we have a very bad habit in the Church of reading scriptures out of context and making them mean things they don’t actually say. Usually those other meanings are also true, but then we miss the message the author intended.)

  18. Pro tip: Start 15 minutes late, go to the YouTube General Conference channel, set it to 1.25x speed, listen more easily as they speak at normal speeds, and enjoy the talks again. You’re welcome. :)

  19. P.S. You’ll have to set the speed back to normal temporarily for the songs, otherwise they sound really wobbly.

  20. General conference used to be the only way to get messages from the general leadership of the church to the entire membership in a uniform and efficient way. That’s not true anymore, and if the Church wants to get a message directly to members, it has a lot of ways of doing that.

    Because of that, I wouldn’t mind shortening conference to maybe three sessions — a Saturday night session for specific populations (men, women, youth, singles, leaders, etc.) and two general sessions on Sunday. The Q12 would speak every year, rather than every conference, but they could still distribute messages throughout the year.

  21. In the early days of the church much of its expansion relied on British converts. The first missionaries there were apostles who were street preachers. They knew how to attract and maintain a distracted audience’s attention.

    The last general authority who knew how to preach was the LaGrand Richards. Those who engage in the general authority conference drone could take a lesson from him.

  22. What I think is amazing is how the church has missed the boat. We’ve been having four 2 hour talky talk sessions for longer than anyone in the world. And we missed the idea that people actually like to listen and mentally engage with a single voice (or two) for hours, rather than having speech-time in snack sized bites.

    What would you rather hear? 12 minutes of Elder Bednar’s polished epistle? Or be a fly on the wall during a long format discussion between Elder Bendar and Elder Uchtdorf about a few important issues they are passionate about?

    We live in an age of polished speeches. The church wasn’t born or developed on them, and our leaders are very authentic. The conference format doesn’t undermine that, but it doesn’t highlight it.

    Plus, I’d be happy with 2 hours with each apostle twice each Year. Listen to them a couple times a month.

    Internet commentary couldn’t hold a candle to Elder Holland for someone to listen to for hours. And yet our apostles are doing the old way of preaching in chapels here and there along with a broadcast twice a year in 15 minute intervals.

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