I tell my friends, not really joking, that if I was born a year or two later, I'd have been diagnosed with ADHD, or maybe ADD. As it were, a fair number of my classmates were, and when I first began working with kids during my late high school, early college years, I noticed an increased number of them were, too. It's not that I was particularly hyperactive, bouncing off the walls. It's just that I had a hard time paying attention and focusing on any one thing, for any length of time.
I still do. Only now, I don't think of it as an anomaly. It seems like almost everyone has difficulty paying attention to any one thing for too long these days. Maybe it's always been that way. Maybe the scientists and artists and creators who are able to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, absorbing every detail, maybe they are the outliers.
What I take away from this, then, is the the fact that short-attention spans are a characteristic of zoo and aquarium visitors as they are any other segment of the population. I was reading a study a while back that said that the average visitor spends 30 seconds to 90 seconds at an enclosure. Maybe longer if there is a baby, or a feeding demonstration, or perhaps the animal is playing with some enrichment, but not too much longer.
And if you want to experience a really short attention span, try talking to visitors as an educator.
A lot of the educators and docents I've worked with have labored under a misapprehension. That misapprehension was that the visitors came to the zoo to hear them talk, and to have their heads filled with an impressive assortment of facts. They do not. They come to see the animals, enjoy some time with friends or family, and have a nice day out. They can be very receptive to education, but on their terms. And the most important term is that isn't boring, and certainly not too time-consuming. And so, with every animal in the zoo, I try to develop an elevator speech.
An elevator speech, if you aren't familiar with it, is the concept that you have find yourself in an elevator with someone, and you have the duration of that ride to convey an idea to that person. No, the elevator never breaks down, leaving you two trapped together so you have a captive audience for hours until the fire department rescues you both. You've got a minute or so to convey a message, that being the length of their attention span. All you have to do is choose what the message will be.
The message should have a few attributes. Accuracy is a good place to start - make sure what you're saying is true. We've already covered brevity. Perhaps the most important is to try and make it so that visitors find it interesting, relatable, and perhaps even relevant. For example, check out these two blurbs I've overheard keepers sharing with visitors about capybaras:
Number 1: Hello. These are capybaras. They are the largest rodent in the world. They can weigh over 100 pounds and measure 4 feet long. They have eyes and ears and nostrils on the top of their faces to help them see, hear, and smell while the rest of their body is under the water. They live in northern and central South America and are found in wetlands. They eat grasses and aquatic vegetation. Any questions?
Number 2: Hello, and welcome to the zoo. These are Al and Peggy, our capybara. These guys are the largest rodents in the world - you can sort of think of a capybara as a guinea pig the size of a sheep that thinks its a hippo. Capybara do act a lot like hippos - they spend a lot of their time in the wetlands and underwater, sometimes with just their faces over the surface, eating lots of wetland plants. Do you have any questions about the capybara?
Sure, number 2 is slightly longer, but it's a lot more likely to hold the interest of the visitors. It doesn't contain numbers (I avoid numbers in talks unless there is a specific reason one is cool and noteworthy, like how fast a cheetah can run, or how much an elephant eats in a day). Instead, it creates imagery and makes comparisons with more familiar things. Note that it also repeats the animal's name - capybara - four times, improving the odds of visitors actually remembering what they are called.
The best way to perfect your elevator speech is to talk to as many visitors about the animals as you can. Take note of what interests them, and incorporate that into your speech as a hook. Also, ask yourself - if I want this person to leave here knowing only one thing about this animal, what is it? Is it that rattlesnakes aren't monsters trying to kill us all? That tamarins don't make good pets? That polar bears are threatened by climate change?
Whatever it is that you want to say, say it quickly. You've got their attention - and you only have about sixty seconds to keep it.