Your long-term success depends on winning the attention of others. If your boss doesn’t notice your work, how will you get a promotion? If your team doesn’t listen to you, how can you lead effectively? And if you can’t capture the attention of clients, how does your business or career survive?
“Attention is the most important currency that anybody can give you,” Steve Rubel of Edelman once told me. “It’s worth more than money, possessions or things.”
But very few people know the science behind captivating others. That’s why I spent two years researching the subject for my new book. I sifted through more than 1,000 psychology, neurology, economics, and sociology studies. I interviewed dozens of leading researchers and attention-grabbing thought leaders, including Sheryl Sandberg, Steven Soderbergh, and David Copperfield, just to name a few. And I drew on my years of experience with startups, both as co-Editor of Mashable and a venture capitalist.
I learned that there are seven triggers that call people to attention:
Automaticity. If somebody fires a gun in the air, you’re going to turn your head. If a female hitchhiker wears red, she’s more likely to get picked up. Sensory cues like these to direct our attention automatically. It’s a safety and survival mechanism that helps us react faster than our brains can think. I’m not suggesting you speak louder than everyone else and always wear crimson dresses or socks. But think about more subtle ways to play on people’s instincts to capture attention. For example, try giving a star prospect or client a hot cup of coffee or tea. One study published in Science found that exposure to that kind of warmth made them more giving and friendly.
Framing. Our view of the world is shaped by our biological, social, and personal experiences and biases. These frames of reference lead us to embrace and pay attention to some ideas and to ignore others entirely. To leverage this trigger, you have to either adapt to your audience’s frame or change it. One technique you might use to achieve the latter is repetition. A classic study from the 1970s found that if you expose subjects to the same statement (e.g. “Tulane defeated Columbia in the first Sugar Bowl game.”) repeatedly, they will start to believe it is true. So don’t be afraid to repeat a message if you want it to sink in.
Disruption. We pay special attention to anything that violates our expectations. This is because we have an innate need to figure out whether the incident signals a threat or a positive development. In academic circles, this is known as expectancy violations theory. The more disruptive something is, the more interesting it becomes. To get the attention of your bosses, clients and colleagues, try surprising them in a positive way: ask an unexpected question, beat a tough deadline, invite them for a walk instead of a coffee.
Reward. Many people believe the neurotransmitter dopamine causes us to feel pleasure. But, according to Dr. Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, it is much more aligned with anticipation and motivation. It fuels our desire to “want” food, sex, money or more intrinsic rewards like self-satisfaction and a sense of purpose. The prospect of capturing these things makes us pay attention. Your goal as a manager should be to identify the incentives that most appeal to your employees, colleagues and bosses and to make them more visceral in their minds. Rewards we can touch, experience, or even just visualize have a greater impact on our attention. For example, when you’re offering your team an off-site retreat at the end of a big project, don’t just tell them about it – send them pictures and make them salivate.
Reputation. Consumers consistently rate experts as the most trusted spokespeople, more than CEOs or celebrities. There’s a scientific reason for this: in a 2009 study, Emory University neuroeconomist Greg Berns found that the decision-making centers of our brains slow or even shut down while we are receiving advice from an expert. This is a phenomenon Dr. Robert Cialdini calls “directed deference.” So, especially if you’re trying to capture the attention of people who don’t know you, feel free to lead with your credentials, establish your expertise and cite others who are most knowledgeable on the topic at hand.
Mystery. Ever wonder why we’re unable to put down a good book or stop binge-watching shows like Lost? Our memory is fine-tuned to remember incomplete stories and tasks. There’s actually a scientific term for this: the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Soviet psychologist who discovered it. We also dislike uncertaintyand will actively try to reduce it by any means possible, and you can use this to your advantage. Say you’re meeting with a prospective client or recruit, and you’d like her to come back for a second meeting. Tell her a story or assign yourself a task that you’ll complete when she does. Her compulsion for completion will nag at her, which means you’ve got her attention.
Acknowledgement. Dr. Thomas de Zengotita, a media anthropologist and author of Mediated, believes that acknowledgement – our need for validation and empathy from others – is one of our most vital needs. “All mammals want attention,” he told me. “Only human beings need acknowledgment.” Key to this is a sense of belonging to a community that cares about us. Create that feeling for anyone whose attention you’d like to capture, and they’ll repay you.
The most effective employees, managers, and executives are the ones who use these seven triggers to shine a spotlight on their ideas, projects, and teams. Understanding the science of attention is a prerequisite to success in the information age.
Ben Parr is the author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention (HarperOne, 2015) and a partner at DominateFund.