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How Attention Works, and How to Get It

How Attention Works, and How to Get It

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
3 min read

The sun beats down on the open Savannah. The horizon is wavy with heat rising from the cracked desert dirt. There is no sound. You survey the area in all directions and see nothing but shrubs and a few slow moving creatures in the distance. They’re not a threat. Suddenly something darts off in the distance from complete stillness to a 30mph sprint.

You see it, of course. It got your attention. But why?

The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. This is true for visual patterns, like stillness on the Savannah. As soon as something moves, you can’t help but be drawn to it. But patterns come in many forms, and our brains are drawn to broken patterns of all kinds.

I was recently asked how to get attention through writing. It’s a billion dollar question! Just like we’re drawn to anomalies in our visual field, our brains seek patterns in all forms of communication. As soon as the pattern is broken, our brains are on alert.

In a world of fight, flight, or freeze, this pattern recognition kept us safe. Whenever a pattern broke, the brain flipped a switch and was prompted with a decision to respond. It helped us catch our dinner, and it helped us avoid being a larger animal’s dinner.

Writing advertising or sales copy is no different. The stakes are a bit lower – if you screw it up, you won’t be dinner – but the principle is essentially the same when it comes to snagging attention.

Eugene Schwartz’s famous Blue Blockers infomercial is a perfect example. It was shot entirely as a “reality” advertisement set on Venice Beach in California, and it even included a rapped jingle that ended in the brand name Blue Blockers. Nothing like this had existed before. It snagged attention, and succeeded because it was unlike any other infomercial (or commercial, for that matter). If you haven’t seen the short-form commercial, take a watch on YouTube to get schooled in classic direct response technique.

Attention is a precious resource; it’s a limited resource. Most people won’t volunteer their attention to you. You have to work for it. Getting attention is contextual, too. In a stuffy business sales environment, striking a conversational or even familiar tone will break the expected pattern (“business selling robots must remain serious”). If you want to break someone’s expectations, next time they ask “how are you?”, just say “quite depressed actually.” You’ll have their attention, but they won’t know what to say!

Just like your mom told you when you were 3, there’s such thing as positive and negative attention. Even if you do it unintentionally, grabbing negative attention can have a lasting and – you guessed it – negative impact. I once got an email from a marketer and the email subject line was “then the goat’s head exploded.” Interesting! I opened the email, but only to unsubscribe.

  1. What are they expecting? What is everyone else doing and saying?
  2. What would be a delightful surprise?

Then you try a few things. Some of your attempts to gain attention will fail, and that’s fine. But you’ll eventually stumble on something that works. Ask why, and do more of it.

Typically, you can gain attention in you writing by:

  1. Appealing to curiosity
  2. Appealing to greed
  3. Effectively using humor (this is hard to do)
  4. Surfacing a problem or loss
  5. Appealing to sex or social status
  6. Having a different tone, choice of language, or unique offer
  7. Delivering in a different medium (i.e. sending mail when your competitors only email)
  8. Being unashamedly honest

Certainly there are other ways to get attention, but this list will get you started for the next 5 years or more. And notice that getting attention has nothing to do with you and everything to do with your audience.