How To Claim Attention In a Hyper-Distracted World

Attention, says Chris Hayes, the moderator of MSNBC’s “All In” program, is the scarcest commodity of the 21st century.

True. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes eloquently about the differences between deep attention and hyper-attention. Hyper-attention is a fractured attention in which we rapidly zip from one point of focusto the next. You and I know. Googling. Tweeting. Facebooking. Instagramming. Activities like skimming and scanning are often associated with fractured attention. Popular claims notwithstanding, hyper-attention does not equal sustained retention.

Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, thought she was immune to the perils of fractured attention. Sure, she saw evidence of fractured attention in many of her students – but that was other people! Until Wolf sat down one evening to read a novel by Hermann Hesse, one of her favorite authors, and found it difficult to focus on the book. Alarm bells rang.

Yes, the insistent stimulation of a hyper-attention culture affects every one of us. In every business situation, we engage with folks who have diminished attention spans. The time-tested essentials of influential communication become exponentially important in our attention-deprived-world.

Let’s remind ourselves of these business essentials.

  1. Lead with your main message. Unless you’re in an explicit brainstorming session, nobody wants to hear you think out loud. Folks long to hear a clear message from you, from the moment you begin to speak. Don’t crawl your way toward your main message as you speak. State it in the first sentence. Elaborate afterwards.

  2. Lead with your personal energy. When you speak up in a meeting, speak with energy, the second you open your mouth. You don’t have time for a sentence or two to “warm up” as you get going. If anything, begin with a little bit of extra energy at the start so our attention shifts from the previous speaker to you.  If your energy doesn’t grab me from the start, why the heck should I listen to you?

  3. Lead with the unexpected. When you speak, grab my attention with a colorful phrase, a succinct metaphor, a compelling analogy. If this does not come easily to you, listen to the pundits that offer commentary on television news shows. As annoying as some of them can be – the good ones have mastered this skill. They grab our attention, from the start, with their choice of language. Don’t wait for the lucky moment of inspiration. Study, practice, experiment. Master this skill.

  4. Lead with joy. When you communicate with a sense of delight, I want to listen to you. Ditto when you speak with a sense of joy. Don’t be overly measured as you talk. Don’t be pedantic. Above all, please don’t be boring. No matter how clever your argument is, I will tune you out. Cultivate the art of finding joy in the act of speaking.

Here’s the good news about fractured attention. The techniques just listed will help you harness the attention of your audience. Any audience. Better yet: After her alarm bells rang, Maryanne Wolf was determined to reclaim her facility for deep attention. Wolf discovered that after 2 weeks of determined focus on the Hesse novel, her ability to immerse herself in deep reading returned. Whew. It took paying attention to her attention.

So, pay attention to attention. Theirs and yours. Claim it. There is no sustained personal success without it.