What "I Love Lucy," "Cheers" and "Modern Family" tell us about communicating with younger employees

"I Love Lucy," "Cheers" and "Modern Family" are three of the most popular sitcoms of their eras, but beyond giving multiple generations a lot to laugh about, these shows tell us something critical about our attention spans and communicating in today’s workplace.

While watching "Modern Family's" Mitch and Cam, Phil and Claire and company in a recent episode, I was struck by how many scene changes occurred during the show, how brief each scene was, and how different that seemed when recalling older shows such as Cheers and I Love Lucy. What do television writers; directors and producers know about us that hold key takeaways for communicating with our employees, particularly the younger ones (aka the “millennials”)?

I performed a very simple, non-scientific study to test my observation -- I watched one episode each of "Modern Family," "Cheers" and "I Love Lucy," counted the number of scenes or setting changes, and the length of each scene in the three shows. I then calculated the average amount of time per scene in each show.

Keep in mind that while the three shows were created in different culture and television eras, each was created as a half-hour situation comedy. The episodes I watched spanned over 60 years, with decades-long gaps from the "I Love Lucy" episode (1952) to the "Cheers" episode (1986) to the "Modern Family" episode (2015). As you might expect, the results tell us something about the decrease in attention spans -- particularly in our social media world.

Here are the results of my three-show study:

Show Number of Scenes Average Length per Scene Longest Scene Shortest Scene
"I Love Lucy" (“Lucy does a TV commercial” – 1952) 5 4 minutes,
1 second
9 minutes, 31 seconds 2 minutes,
19 seconds
"Cheers" (“Knights of the Cimitar” – 1986) 6 3 minutes, 33 seconds 5 minutes, 36 seconds 1 minute,
17 seconds
"Modern Family" (“The Big Guns” – 2015) 33 38 seconds 2 minutes, 54 seconds 4 seconds

Not only is there a sharp drop in the average time per scene among the three shows, but a precipitous decrease from "Cheers" (1986) to "Modern Family" (2015) -- from 3.5 minutes per scene to just over half a minute per scene, whereas the decrease in average time per scene from "I Love Lucy" (1952) to "Cheers" (1986) was only half a minute.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information and The Associated Press reported that attention span, or the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted, was down to 8 seconds in 2013 (apparently the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds).1 Other than how we compare to goldfish, the decrease in attention span probably comes as little surprise given the amount of external, “quick-hit” stimulation delivered in our social media world.

When considering that the total of millennials -- those born from 1981 to 1997 -- will reach 75.3 million, overtaking baby boomers (1946 to 1964) as the United States’ largest living generation, focusing on how to communicate with younger employees is critical.2 If we take a page from the "Modern Family" script, the following are suggested means of communicating with employees, particularly millennials:

  • Keep written or e-mail communications brief and to the point; use shorter paragraphs and visual aids such as pictures or graphics to convey information or key points. Whether right or wrong, millennials were raised to read and communicate on mobile devices (e.g. iPhones) through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to name a few.
  • Keep in-person or video-conference meetings short and to the point.
  • Reconsider the tried-and-true presentation method of reading and reciting PowerPoint slides to your audience, with transitions to alternative communication formats such as videos or pictures.
  • My 17-year-old daughter recommends clearly articulating cause and effect relationships to make your point. For example, use the “inverted or upside-down pyramid” to lead your audience through the details and information of a communication.

Remember -- an increasing portion of your workplace audience was raised in the social media world of "Modern Family"; not the black-and-white era of "I Love Lucy." Keep that in mind so that the last laugh remains with the television show instead of you.

Dave YarinDave Yarin is a compliance and risk management consultant to senior management and directors of large and mid-size companies, and author of the soon to be published book “Fair Warning — The Information Within.” Yarin follows and researches news stories regarding ignored warnings that lead to bad business outcomes, along with the social psychology theories that explain why these warnings were ignored. He lives near Boston with his fiancée and two children. For more information, visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his FlipBoard magazine, Fair Warning

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1 National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press

2 January 19, 2015 New York Times, “Millennials Set to Outnumber Baby Boomers,” by Douglas Quenqua