Attention is Power

frank cotham cartoon
Cartoon by Frank Cotham in The New Yorker. Buy his artwork here.

In a recent conversation Jon Husband commented that, in the face of information overload, knowledge is no longer power. Today, attention is power:

  • With the indifference and ignorance of the modern electorate in most countries, the politician who can grab the most media attention (unless it’s really bad attention) is almost sure to win. You need to either be a celebrity, or buy celebrity, to get that attention. Get that attention, and you get power.
  • Big corporations know that the purpose of advertising isn’t to communicate or inform the public about your product, it’s to get your attention. If they can get your attention, they can get your dollars, enough to buy up competitors so they have no opportunity to divert that attention.
  • Extremists of every stripe know that if they can get public attention, they can accomplish much more than by trying to articulate their message coherently or passionately.
  • In the business rat race, you’re much more likely to get ahead if you do one or two things well that really garner attention, rather than a dozen things competently but invisibly. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • Tall people succeed more than short people, and loud people get more response than soft-spoken people, for no other reason than that they command more attention.

I’ve been writing this blog for five years, and developed an astute and delightful readership, but I don’t really get much attention. So far that hasn’t concerned me — I’m content to inspire readers whose knowledge and energy and capacities are undoubtedly way beyond mine to act on what they learn here and inspire others to act. But they often lament that they can’t get much attention either.

So what are some ethical strategies for getting more attention for knowledge, ideas and insights that are important? How did the anti-smoking gang, and Al Gore, and the Earth Hour gang, manage to get as much attention for their causes as they did?

I’m looking for your ideas on this, since if I had the answers I’d have applied them. How can we get attention? How can we get people to listen? Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Make the message simple, compelling, personal and memorable. That makes it easier to hold attention, and to allow people who hear it to get the attention across to others, virally.
  2. Repeat the message often (but not too often). Sometimes people need to hear something a few times before it really registers.
  3. Show, don’t tell. Use a story or photo or graphic example to convey the message instead of lecturing or beating people over the head with your argument and analysis. When people get it from a story, they’ll fill in the blanks to make it their own, and then it’s their learning, their story, not yours, so they’ll memorize it, and retell it.
  4. Be passionate (your enthusiasm is infectious and persuasive), but don’t be hysterical.
  5. Be sincere. If you don’t really care, you can’t expect others to. You can’t fake this.
  6. Don’t try to change people’s minds. Tell them what you believe, and why. Give them information, not argument. If they’re ready for what you have to say, they’ll pay attention. If not, don’t waste your time.

What else? What have you done that has received more attention than anything else you’ve done? What was it that made the difference?

. . . . .

And now that I have your attention: This Friday I’m off to Australia (mostly Victoria) and New Zealand (North Island) for a week of business meetings (knowledge management, sustainability and education), a week of training (Open Space etc.), and a week of vacation (nature photography). I’ll be back before month-end, and I’ll try to post from time to time, but articles will be sporadic.

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10 Responses to Attention is Power

  1. John Powers says:

    That vacation part…enjoy yourself.

  2. It’s easy to give a cynical list – some of these are things that I’ve done, and some are things that people have done using tools that I’ve made.* Tell lies about how the political process actually works in a viral email.* Link what you want to draw attention to with any threat to the motor car.* Have your Government do something really, actually so dangerously fascist that you can say apparently extreme things which are true.Cynicism is lazy, and luckily it is also easy to give a positive list – again, these are from my own experience:* Make an actual improvement to democracy. People like the word democracy, and what it still manages to stand for.* Build a much better interface to a piece of software – do so by “eating your own dogfood”, and really think at all stages of the human experience of the user of the software, not convenience of the programmer. Keep it simple, make decisions for the user, rather than burdening them with choices.* Get a computer to automatically do something that a human used to have to do tediously and badly.* Learn two skills that people don’t normally have both of, and do things using both of them that amaze all the people that have only one of the skills.

  3. Just to add… Dave’s list of 6 things are all fantastic things for good communication, I guess for personal one-to-one attention.However, the question “What have you done that has received more attention than anything else you’ve done?” made me think of much larger scale attention. Dave’s list of 6 may help with that, but are no way sufficient by themselves. You need either something brilliant, or a gimmick, as well.

  4. the most powerful .. or one of them…forces on the planet is appreciation. It is also one of the most underutilised, which is sad because it is part of that energy package we call love. Mutual appreciation societies are often scoffed at, but heck, I’d like to be in one if it were sincere, got results to be appreciated, etc. Without appreciation all the 6 on the list are pale. but add appreciation and you got a powerful force. So we need to express appreciation more… let it out…. so it grows.Maybe one of the reasons it is not prevalent on the planet is that there is 1) not so much to appreciate (I refer to Daves rantings about poor products and poor services)not to mention dysfunctional government 2) some strange story going round that love, security, happiness should be in short supply and the we are all poor wretched sinners who do not deserve anything unless we …. pray, work our fingers to the bone, brush our teeth with pepsodent and kill germs in the loo.If you appreciate your wife, she will love it. you will get attention back. You can work on getting appreciation from your customers… they will give their attention. I appreciate Dave and his blog so he gets my attention….

  5. In my opinion, attention works well as a mutual concept.

  6. Guy Cross says:

    I think if one person appreciates what you do, there is a strong chance you will keep on doing it, even without recogniction etc

  7. SB says:

    Gandhi: “Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”Perhaps he was thinking of poets.

  8. RJM says:

    Have just recently be reading this fantastic blog and am more interested in your upcoming trip to my land, NZ. Please tell me more. I think that NZ maybe one of the few places in the world with ‘grounded’ people and lots of space..??? We probably don’t want too many people knowing that though!!

  9. Brutus says:

    Unless one is trying to manipulate relationships and command attention, I suspect the best answer to the question of how to gain others’ attention is to reciprocate (in advance) by giving one’s own attention. That may not be as utile as bonking someone over the head and saying “listen to me” (or some less crass version), but it’s probably the sort of interrelationship needed in the long run.That said, the question itself strikes me as rather venal and narcissistic. The implication is that success and competence are meaningless unless they get noticed somehow, and further, that our self-worth is derived predominantly in the reflections of ourselves others show us. Isn’t that a sad orientation, giving others such much power over us and forgoing the simple satisfaction of competence and a job well done in favor of heedless adoration? Besides, to be successful on others’ terms, one typically has to dilute and sell out to gain the widest possible acclaim. If that’s what you want, then you’re in good company. For me, no thanks.

  10. IMHO, writing essays isn’t a very effective way to communicate with most people. The problem is, that the vast majority of high browed authors are being insincere when they write. People don’t know how to look for literature which is sincere. And so, generally, folks who are seeking wisdom are bounced around like pinballs or pachinko balls. There is no commonly understood way to discern valuable essays, and distinguish them from ideas written by people who are being disingenuous… or who are merely regurgitating the standard trade knowledge and models which are popular in whatever decade the author is writing in.Also, of course, the vocabulary which we essayists use, is also a barrier to entry for readers.To be most effective, I think you have to condense the idea into a film plot, or into a song that can be recorded and released on a compact disc or as an mp3 file.Colleges and universities today, are in my opinion, really trade schools more than anything else. There are no colleges forpeople who want to learn to think like you do, Mr. Pollard. I think it’d be great if philosophy departments would expand toform the auspices of a new type of college – where people would learn to think critically. And in those programs, you could also teach entrepreurial skills… so people who couldn’t make money as writers, could use their innovative ideas to make money, instead.

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