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Across the fence: The cowboy’s attention span

Marci Whitehurst for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 January 2019

Researchers now say the attention span of the average American is eight seconds. When you are riding a bronc, eight seconds feels like a long time. An eight-second conversation, on the other hand, doesn’t last very long.

I thought perhaps the research was wrong. Can we really only pay attention for eight seconds? I took notes:

Me: “Honey, we are moving bulls tomorrow, right?”

Hubby: “Yep, moving bulls.”

I fold a load of laundry.

Me: “So … what’s on the schedule for tomorrow?”

Ahhh! A few pairs of socks later … I don’t remember what I’m doing the next day.

I’m not the only one though. One of my kids was reading a book, and I asked him if he’d haul in more firewood. “Sure,” he said.

I headed to the kitchen to start supper. Truly, about eight seconds later, he walks into the kitchen, “Hey Mom, anything I can do to help?”

Me: “Umm, sure, you can haul in some firewood.”

Him: “OK.”

He bundles up and heads out the door.

Overall, I’m choosing to focus on the fact he asked what he could do to help. That made me proud. But truly, eight seconds might be a good goal for me when beginning conversations. Maybe I’ll take a deep breath and get everything out as fast as I can. I could even have a blow horn when time is up.

Me: “I’mheadedtotown. Anyoneneedanything? Iknowweareoutoftoiletpaper, schoolsupplies, andneedalotoffood. I’llhavemycellphone. Callwithinanhour orImightnotgetwhatyouneed.”

Buzzer. Breath. And finish.

Except no one would understand what I said, and the children would think there was something wrong with me. A fair question.

What can you possibly say in eight seconds without sounding like an auctioneer?

It turns out, quite a bit. When we are intentional, we focus on what we really want to say. Consider how some of us cowboy wives beat around the bush:

Me: “So there’s a sale on cast-iron cookware at Western Surplus R Us. Don’t you just love that tea kettle?”

Him: “Western Surplus R Us is having a sale? Let me see that flier.” Grunts, groans, ahhs and uh-huhs … “Ammo is on sale. So are work gloves. And dang, did you see the price of the log splitter? And ohh, there’s a big generator.”

Me: “Did you see the kettle?”

Him: “Kettle? Oh my goodness. They’ve got whatcha-ma-digits. I need some whatcha-ma-digits.” He puts on his boots. “I’m going to town for grain. Do you want me to look for anything?”

Me: “A kettle.”

Him: “What kind of kettle?”

Me: “A cast-iron kettle.”

Him: “Is it on sale?”

Me: “Yeah, I think so …” Face palm. “I’ll come with you.”

If I had just started with: “Honey, when you go to get grain, will you stop at Western Surplus R Us and grab this cast-iron kettle? I need it for the wood stove.” Boom. Eight seconds. Communication is clear.

This focused attention could come in handy in other regards as well. Out in the pasture working cows? Easy as pie.

“Honey, open that green gate. I’m retaining heifer 219.” There isn’t a question as to which heifer or what gate … it would flow. It’d cut down on the hand signals and frustration. Often, when I’m at the gate, all I get is a flailing arm and “get her.”

The reality of the flailing arm and a two-word sentence is understandable, though. You know why? When in the heat of the moment, my brain doesn’t always work as fast or efficiently as I hope. Sometimes I can’t say it in eight seconds because I don’t always think it in eight seconds.

My brain tells me, “Stop that one, yep, go.” Then I have to convert that into an eight-second logical sentence to say, “I like her body condition and disposition. Let’s retain 219. Please, my amazing spouse, open the green gate.”

I guess what we ought to do is be prepared for situations within our reach. In writing, they call it the elevator pitch. You have a few moments (probably eight seconds) in an elevator (figuratively speaking) to tell someone who you are and what you do or to pitch a proposal to an editor. What will you say?

“I raise good stock” or “I write agriculture” is too generic. What makes you different? We all need to be prepared with a quick sentence that sheds a positive light on ranching and the ag industry as a whole. I had opportunity to share a quick line with a cashier.

“We raise quality cattle using low-stress handling practices to produce a viable food product in an ethical way.” The cashier smiled, and hopefully whoever had the PETA sticker on their car was behind me.

Eight seconds, my friends. It’s a ride, but we can make it. Our attention spans depend on … oh look, a rabbit. end mark

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