Dr.sc.comm. Olga Kazaka, Partner at A.W.Olsen & Partners
In 1970s psychologist, economist, and Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon postulated that we live in conditions of an “attention economy”, when a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Since then, this idea has been developed by other authors, who argue that attention is becoming a modern currency. Media actually monetise its audience's attention by selling it to advertisers.
Another specificity of the attention is that this resource is highly limited. Your audience can’t give it to many objects simultaneously. Today, in times of social networks, media compete for the attention of the audience not only with other media, but also with messages of the reader's friends and relatives, as well as commercial information appearing in their social media news feed.
How to Attract Attention
Signals connected with fundamental survival motivations are the catchiest. So here will be all the topics related to continuation of life and the fear of death: security fraud, nonstandard situations, danger to children, as well as sex.
The problem with scary messages is that in case of their high concentration, the audience tends to self-isolate from them, so the solution would be adding instructions on how to avoid or tackle such content.
If you asked me to define the modern communication formula, I would say: the audience gives its attention in exchange for emotions. So how can you supply these requested emotions to your audience? Here come some simple tips based on neuroscientists’ surveys.
Cutting extraneous words and using the active voice are two ways to keep it simple. Even more, people think that simpler patterns yield better predictions, explanations, and decisions. So don’t try to be too smart in your texts.
More-specific words activate more neurons in the visual and motor-strip parts of the brain than do the general ones, which means they cause the brain to process meaning more robustly. Our neurons actually “embody” what the words mean. When we hear more-specific ones, we “taste,” “feel,” and “see” traces of the real thing. Words even may extend to our muscles. When people hear sentences related to the mouth, hand, and leg – “I bite an apple”; “I grasp a knife”; “I kick the ball” – the brain regions for moving their jaws, hands, and legs activate.
Our brains are wired to make nonstop predictions, including guessing the next word in every line of text. If your writing confirms the readers’ guess, that’s OK, though possibly a yawner. Surprise can make your message stick, helping readers learn and retain information.
Analysing nearly 7,000 articles that appeared online in the New York Times, researchers found that those rated as surprising were 14% more likely to be on the newspaper’s “most-emailed” list.
Add Emotions and People
Our brains process the emotional connotations of a word within 200 milliseconds of reading it – much faster than we understand its meaning. So when we read emotionally charged material, we reflexively react with feelings – fear, joy, awe, disgust, and so forth – because our brains have been trained since hunter-gatherer times to respond that way. Only after that we understand the sense.
Emotionally significant words attract more of our attention. Here, a valuable element can be a metaphor, as well as… other people. Our brains are wired to crave human connection – even in what we read. We don’t want just to read about people, though – we want to understand what they’re thinking as quickly as possible. Remember to include the human angle in any topic you’re discussing.
To engage readers, use the second person (“you”). Psychologists ran experiments with two versions of an online presentation on the respiratory system. Each included 100 words of spoken text paired with simple animations. But one version used the impersonal third person (“During inhaling, the diaphragm moves down, creating more space for the lungs…”), while the other was more personal (“your diaphragm” and “your lungs…”). People who listened to the latter scored significantly higher than their counterparts on a test that measured what they had learned.
By the way, my modern communication formula has a continuation: the audience gives its attention in exchange for emotions… and keeps it thanks to trust. I wish you to be worthy of attention and trust.
Some links for additional reading
Additional information on attention economy: https://econreview.berkeley.edu/paying-attention-the-attention-economy/
For more tips on how to use discoveries of neurobiologists regarding storytelling, read this article: https://hbr.org/2021/07/the-science-of-strong-business-writing
Project is supported by the Fund for Bilateral Relations of the EEA and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms 2014-2021.