When I was a little girl, my response to the inevitable “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question was “an astronaut!” I can’t remember the first time I actually gave this answer, but it was the only response I ever remember giving. I wrote to NASA when I was 10 years old and they sent me some glossy photos of planets and rockets. My bedroom walls were covered with posters of science fiction movies when other girls were putting up the Bay City Rollers. It even determined the degree I undertook when I left school; maybe mechanical engineering would set me on the path to space! But by my third year at uni it dawned on me that reality could not hold a candle to my vision.
Looking back now I realise that my attention had not been captured by the science of space, the mechanics of space travel, or the chance of discovering life “out there”. It had been captured by stories; Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars were the 2 big ones for me. I was 12 years old and all I saw was the thrill of flying fast, the romance of rescued maidens, and the courage required to take on unimaginable alien threats! I now know that the way those stories lit up my brain was enough to focus me on a path for the next 7 years. I now know that “story” is one of the most powerful ways to capture people’s attention.
If you want to capture people’s attention and motivate positive action, here are 4 techniques that work:
- Tell a Story: story-telling is the oldest technique for sharing information. The human brain is hard wired to light up during stories, allowing more information to be received and remembered, and triggering emotional responses that just don’t happen when faced with facts and figures. Stories are the gateway to hope, inspiration, passion and willingness. So start with a relevant story that will capture attention. It will be remembered well beyond the facts.
- Focus on Purpose: when people are concerned about themselves, their attention is drawn inward and they miss much of what happens around them. An effective way to drawing people’s attention outward is to give something a higher purpose and meaning, and the best way to do that is to highlight the difference their actions can make to others. Not only does it switch their attention on, making a difference to others also lights up the reward centres. This state motivates people to engage, commit and contribute.
- Throw a Curve Ball: the brain will drop into autopilot any chance it gets, but as soon as something unexpected happens, it switches straight back on. Diversity, variety and novelty trigger curiosity, and the brain pays attention as it tries to work out how to respond. Just make sure you stay in the “isn’t that fascinating” zone and avoid slipping into the “that’s a bit scary” threat zone.
- Be a Magnet: attention attracts attention. If you want to capture someone’s attention, give your own first. We mirror other people without even realising it. Mirror neurons in the brain are designed to respond to the actions, intentions and emotions of others so, when you pay full attention yourself, you draw out the attention of others. It’s palpable, visceral, and incredibly powerful. Remember, attention is the only thing you really have to give to another person. So switch it on and light others up.
Unfortunately there are many negative ways to capture people’s attention too. The brain’s threat response receives a barrage of triggers in any given day, from the nightly news coverage, to the rumour mill at work. But unless you are trying to move someone out of real danger, resorting to this strategy to get someone’s attention is just plain lazy. If you want engaged attention and willing action, make the effort to employ positive strategies and you will win the whole person to your cause.