Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 30, 2023
by Neil Senturia
Do you find people get distracted when you are talking or do you wander when the other guy is talking? In our world of high-speed media bits, bytes and baloney, how do you hold someone’s attention long enough to have any impact with your message?
Tell them something that they didn’t know. Even better, something that they cannot immediately and easily comprehend.
My bride, Ms. Bry, and I recently spent a few days in New York City. Nothing out of the ordinary, just 8 inches of rain in 24 hours, Trump in one downtown courthouse and Sam Bankman-Fried in another.
We visited the American Museum of Natural History and among many exhibits, we saw “Worlds Beyond Earth.” This was the solar system “big bang” stuff and should remind all of us just how small we really are in our own little worlds.
When someone tells you that the light you are seeing from a star has been traveling for 100 million years before it got here, it is incomprehensible and makes you think that a couple of hours on the I-5 at rush hour is not that long, really.
The number 100 million — I can grasp that when you talk about the national debt or a successful startup, but when you add the word “years” after it, it is, as the dude says, “mind-blowing.”
Let’s get a bit more rigorous with Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor who has some thoughts on how to keep audiences engaged. He asks, how do we win in this attention economy when we are bombarded from all sides with noise, emails, professional demands, as well as our own personal lives? One of his insights is “processing ease.”
This means: how is the information presented? The folks who prepare and distribute online news, advertising, e-commerce, presentations, etc., spend an enormous amount of time thinking about processing ease. How long do we stay on any one item before we click away? Berger says the key is to make it easy to consume content.
He argues that the writing determines the time on the site, the flow of the information. He encourages “concreteness,” not generalities. The word tomorrow is more specific than soon.
Then he wants to create “emotion,” and it is that word that resonates at the history museum presentation. The images and the words are of such magnitude that you cannot turn away. Even if you do not know what a quark is, you are spellbound.
Berger says, “When you use language that makes people feel uneasy or uncertain, it engages their attention even more.” Do you watch the football game if you already know the final score? You hang in to find out how the movie ends.
I am passionate about magic. I go to every show I can find. In New York, we went to see the absolute best ever, a magician named Steve Cohen. Now, what I like about close-up magic is that you know it can’t be possible. Still, it happens right before your eyes. No matter how intensely you focus on his hands, you cannot see the move. It is riveting.
Importantly, never give away the punchline. Getting someone to stay engaged requires that you make sure your presentation has a finale, a punchline, a wow, and “I never saw that coming.”
Berger says to sell your content with an air of mystery. Make me stay long enough to want to know who killed the butler. It requires creating a bit of uncertainty and even anxiety. How many times has an entrepreneur pitched the traditional deck to an investor who is on the phone or distracted? Throw in a fake slide and see if they notice.
Finally, he talks about creating “arousal.” That is when you get the audience fired up, and they are inclined to take action.
Berger ends with this theme. It is not the topic, gossip or sports scores versus climate change and tax policy that holds someone’s interest — it is the words you use. The words.
The museum experience was incredible given the subject matter, (we went twice), and the way it was presented, the consumer was pulled between trying to comprehend the vast material and at the same time, recognizing the anxiety that it was just way over our heads.
Rule No. 782:
That’s what keeps them coming back again.