Whether it’s pitching your startup to an investor or trying to impress your boss, you likely spend much of your life vying for someone’s attention.
The good news is that there is plenty of research on how the human brain perceives information and directs its focus.
Author and investor Ben Parr went through this research and conducted interviews with experts in the field to isolate seven of what he calls “captivation triggers,” which he explores in his book “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention.”
We’ve summarized the seven triggers you can use to grab anyone’s attention.
Automaticity: Activate the senses.
“We pay attention subconsciously and automatically to certain sights, sounds, and colours and other sensory stimuli based on the contrast they have with their surroundings and the associations we have with them,” Parr says.
For example, the colour of a corporate logo is partially responsible for how a consumer perceives the brand — red can evoke intensity and aggression; blue can evoke comfort and clarity; yellow can evoke energy and freshness.
And your body temperature can determine the way you judge someone. In a 2008 study, researchers Lawrence Williams and John A. Bargh found that participants who held a hot cup of coffee were more likely to judge a stranger as good-natured and generous than those who held an iced coffee. They also found that holding a warm object made someone more likely to be generous themself. So if you’re going to meet someone for the first time, try meeting over a hot coffee. If you’re going to negotiate a deal, make sure yours is iced.
Framing: Contextualize your argument to appeal to your audience.
“We process information in a way that uses our existing frames of reference,” Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin-Madison tells Parr in his book.
Parr explains: “Our past experiences, biological wiring, cultural expectations, interests, opinions, and current moods influence our frames of reference. They are the context in which we make our choices or react the way we do, because no choice or reaction is made in a vacuum.”
A famous illustration of framing is the 1974 study by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer of the University of Washington that asked groups of participants to watch a video of a simulated car crash and guess how fast the cars were going.
The video shown to each group remained the same, but a verb used in the question differed, as in: “About how fast were the cars going when they collided with/bumped/smashed/contacted each other?” The group that heard “smashed” gave the cars the highest estimated speeds, and when each group was asked a week later if the video they had seen contained any broken glass (it did not), the “smashed” group had a much higher percentage of remembering broken glass.
Disruption: Break expectations.
“We pay attention to the things that violate our expectations of the world,” Parr says.
According to expectations violation theory, a positive violation of our expectations causes us to perceive something as much more favourable than it otherwise would be, and a negative violation has the inverse effect.
In a Harvard Business Review post, Parr recommends that you “ask an unexpected question, beat a tough deadline, [or] invite [someone] for a walk instead of a coffee” to gain favour with your boss, colleague, or client.
Reward: Create desire.
Parr says that in his research he learned that, according to Dr. Kent Barridge of the University of Michigan, dopamine is more closely aligned with the creation of desire rather than pleasure, as it is commonly understood.
Barridge conducted a study in which he found that lab mice who were stripped of dopamine were still able to feel pleasure when they were given sugar water, but lost the motivation to achieve rewards, which caused many of them to die.
That means that to fully grab someone’s attention, you should offer the possibility of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.
Parr recommends, for example, that managers can retain their most talented employees by balancing extrinsic rewards (a tangible means of satisfaction) like bonuses with intrinsic rewards (opportunities to better oneself) like new challenges.
Reputation: Establish credibility.
“We pay deference and huge amounts of attention to reputable sources,” Parr says.
Robert Cialidini of Arizona State University calls people’s natural tendency to accept authority without question “directed deference.”
This was shown in a 2009 study by Greg Berns of Emory University, which found that the decision-making parts of participants’ brain essentially shut down when they were advised by financial experts, accepting the counseling as fact.
That’s why it’s necessary to first convince someone that they should be listening to you in the first place before they can even consider your argument. It’s why many investors are now paying attention to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which offer proof of concept and minimize an investor’s perception of risk.
Mystery: Leave things incomplete.
According to the uncertainty reduction principle, the brain is constantly searching to reduce uncertainty about the target of its focus. And according to the Zeigarnik effect, “we have a stronger memory for incomplete tasks and thoughts” relative to those that were completed, Parr says.
If you’re trying to capture someone’s interest, don’t give away too much or exhaust the presentation.
It’s why, for example, Influencers founder Jon Levy says that no introductory meeting should last longer than 45 minutes. “It’s better to leave the conversation having something to talk about and feeling like you need to connect again rather than feeling that the energy’s died,” he says.
Acknowledgment: Contribute to your audience’s identity.
The greatest “masters of attention,” Parr says, create a sense of community with their audience, because humans have an innate desire to be recognised.
It’s why companies like Google and Salesforce, which offer perks that acknowledge employees as individuals rather than simply cogs in the machine, continue to attract top talent and outperform competitors.
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