Strategies to Get and Hold A Person’s Attention

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The Myth of Human Attention Spans Being Short

Trying to get and hold a person’s attention while communicating with them is challenging enough. Trying to hold their attention for your entire conversation so they recall information later can even be tougher. You may have heard that humans have less attention span than goldfish. Well, that is actually a myth. In fact, there is no evidence that goldfish or fish in general have low attention spans. In actuality, humans have extraordinary attention spans and our attention is getting even better.

So, if human attention spans are not shorter than a goldfish, nor are they even short at all, why then do we have a tough time getting and holding a person’s attention? The simple answer is multitasking.

Multitasking, Task Switching, and Memory

Multitasking, or the myth of multitasking, is the number one reason getting and holding a person’s attention is challenging. But, it’s not just multitasking alone. It’s multitasking while using technology. In this scenario, technology has a negative impact on learning and memory. In his book, “Brain Rules,” molecular biologist John Medina notes we are not actually engaged in multitasking when we might believe that we are, because the brain is biologically incapable of successfully engaging in multiple tasks at the same time. What we are engaged in is task switching.

We trick our brains into thinking we are performing multiple tasks at once, when in fact we are switching back and forth between two or more tasks, thus task switching. Communicating with someone engaged in task switching activities is ineffective since the information they are receiving only makes it into sensory memory, which is memory that is fleeting, and rarely, if ever, makes it to short-term memory.

Before I get into the much needed discussion on how to hold a person’s attention, let me first discuss how attention works, and a brief overview of the different types of human memory that help or hinder one’s attention.

How Human Attention Works

When someone tells you, they can do two tasks at the same time, while listening to you and completely understand everything you’re a saying, that is most often untrue. Processing new information requires the person listening to focus their attention on what is being said. The way human attention works is that we receive different stimuli which pass through our brain’s sensory pathway to a part of the brain that functions as the body’s information relay station, the thalamus.

illustration of brain region thalamus for article get and hold a persons attention

Cross section of the human brain showing the Thalamus region, the human body’s information relay station.

The process of filtering the stimuli occurs either voluntary or involuntary. For example, with voluntary stimuli filtering, we practice selective attention. Imagine attending a social gathering of friends and family. While attending the gathering, you can selectively (voluntarily) focus your attention on a conversation with one person while the surrounding party noise continues in the background. If a sudden sound occurs, like dishes crashing or an argument breaks out, you involuntarily switch focus to the new and sudden stimuli. Which leads us to the second way our minds attend to sensory stimuli, involuntarily.

The brain processing stimuli involuntarily do so with a set of specific characteristics. First, we focus our attention involuntarily on things we are trained to focus on or have a habit of focusing. We know this concept as the frequency illusion.

The frequency illusions works like this: imagine you just purchased a sky blue metallic car, which sky blue happened to be your favorite color. As you are driving, you notice other cars of the same color. You wonder if sky blue is a trending color, and you’ve never noticed it before. The reality is, you focused on what was important to you in terms of car colors and then involuntarily focused on other cars of similar color, hence the frequency illusion.

Similar to the frequency illusion, there is the confirmation bias. We are guilty of the confirmation bias when we seek information or ideas that confirm and support our own views while ignoring ideas and information that challenge those views. In other words, we attend to more readily, involuntarily, things that we expect to see or want to see. People who are already set in their beliefs fail to consider what the other side is saying in the face of confirmation bias. This can explain why two opposing viewpoints do not easily understand the opposing point of view.

A third way we process stimuli involuntarily is that we often pay attention to different situations. For example, imagine that you are sitting in a movie theater focused on watching a movie. Imagine that halfway through the movie, at a critical turning point, you hear the loud, squealing cries of a child. Your attention involuntarily goes to the distinct sound of the crying baby. We pay attention involuntarily to distinct sounds, smells, and sights that break our focus.

Finally, we involuntarily pay attention to things that are good or bad. For example, if we are out on a nature hike and come across a snake or sit down on a rock, not expecting to see a spider crawl past us, we shift our focus immediately from our scenic view to the perceived dangerous element. Conversely, good things also involuntarily distract us, such as a puppy playing in a yard or a child’s infectious laughter.

Image of a snake and cute puppy for the article get and hold a person's attention. Image of snake and puppy

Knowing how human attention works is the first part of the strategy to get and hold a person’s attention while communicating with them. Understanding the different human memory types helps solidify your understanding of how human attention works and how to best get and hold a person’s attention during conversation.

Human Memory Types — An Overview

Human memory is a complex process with varying types of memory stored in different parts of the brain. Our memories or lack of memories often cause our miscommunications, so memory plays an important role in communication. Thus, by leveraging how memory works in the brain, we can create more effective and positive experiences when communicating with others as well as increase our success to get and hold a person’s attention.

The following are the varying types of human memory, and a brief description of how each one stores information into our memory.

Sensory memory is the shortest form of memory, lasting briefly fewer than three seconds. This type of memory takes in everything that our sensory system does, such as sights, smells, sounds, and touch. Sensory memory alone does not make it into our conscious awareness.

Short-Term memory lasts about 15 to 30 seconds and a person can hold about seven items, plus or minus two items in short-term memory. Hence, the reason phone numbers are seven digits in the U.S. It is, however, possible to increase the amount of items you hold in short-term memory by using repetition or mnemonic devices.

Working memory is like a mental workspace where you can bring together short-term and long-term memory to execute cognitive tasks, like achieving a goal or solving a problem.

Long-Term memory is memory that takes information from short-term memory and coverts it into long-lasting memories. Long-term memory is from an hour to decades old and can be held for an indefinite period.

Semantic memory relates to facts that we learned about our environment and the world. An example of semantic memory may require you to recall five facts about your last vacation or travels to another country.

Episodic memory are memories remembered from your personal point of view. They include sounds, sights, smells about things that have happened in a specific context, time, or place in your life.

Procedural memory pertains to things you know how to do. For example, driving a manual shift car or preparing a specific meal from your mind, not a recipe, is a procedural memory.

Prospective memory are those memories about things we are planning to do in the future. They are the memories about the things we want, intend, or plan to do. Prospective memory can be as simple as planning to take your lunch to work or school the next day or planning to take a family vacation in a year.

Prior to discussing strategies and tactics for getting and keeping someone’s attention, it is important to understand that using what you know about how memory works in the brain can enhance your communication skills. The following best practice strategies for leveraging what you know about memory can help you get your audience to fully understand the message you are trying to convey.

Leveraging Knowledge about Memory to Improve Communication

By leveraging the knowledge we have about how human memory works, we can begin to improve our communication with other people, thus helping our listeners to better focus their attention on us when we speak.

Three Communication Best Practices for Leveraging our Knowledge of Human Memory

Emphasize Context and Purpose

When it comes to remembering information, emphasizing the context and purpose helps the receiver recall that information better. Every now and then, a student asks why they need to learn something in their classroom. It is a missed opportunity for many educators to seal the information within their students’ minds. Instead of connecting the lesson to a purpose for learning or giving the lesson context, the educator may say something like, “it’s a required course,” or “because you have to.” Failing to provide context or purpose often results in rendering the information useless by the receiver. People do not easily remember useless information since it does not make it into their long-term memory.

Follow these steps to help people remember information:

  1. Clarify that the information you are providing will need to be remembered in the future. Explain to them why they need to remember that information.
  2. Help the listener/learner visualize themselves interacting with the information in the future.
  3. Using statements like, “I may ask you about the report (or any information you want the person to recall) later in a meeting,” help trigger the receiver’s memory and increases the chances for information recall.

Use Emotions to Help Connect Information for Long Term Memory Recall

It’s no secret that emotional resonance helps long-term memory imprinting. Advertisers have capitalised on human emotions to lock-in their brand names with consumers for decades. Research shows that the stronger the emotion exhibited in the experience, or learning, the stronger it’s encoded into long-term memory. There are two tactics in using emotion to get your receiver to better encode your information into memory.

  1. Target one of the six human emotions often used by advertisers. Using this tactic sparingly, you can try to create an emotional response to an interaction between you and the person you are communicating with.
  2. The second tactic for using emotion to encode information to long-term memory is to relate your interaction to an emotional experience rather than making the interaction based on emotion. As an example, connecting the new information with something a person already knows by the use of analogies, similes, parables, stories, or other literary devices helps the person connect the information to the emotion, thus they can easily recall that information at a later time.

Use Mnemonic Devices to get Someone to Remember Information

A mnemonic device makes it easier for a person to recall information. Mnemonic devices help organize data or larger strings of information into simple forms. The most common mnemonic device is an acronym. For example, when trying to recall the order of operations in mathematics, one may use the acronym (or mnemonic device) “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (PEMDAS), to recall the process.

Graphic of the mnemonic device for order of operations in math. PEMDAS. Get and hold a person's attention article

Mnemonic devices are useful because they,

  1. Create associations between new information and what the communicator already knows.
  2. Use cause, patterns, and associations in a way that helps information easily retrieved when needed in the future. An additional benefit is that the device also makes it easier for communicators to visualize the information.

Strategies and Tactics to Get and Holding a Person’s Attention

So far, we’ve discussed human memory myths, how memory works, and different human memory types. We even touched on how one can leverage the different human memory types to improve their communication.

We know that to get a person to remember any information it requires their full attention to the conversation. Partial attention, “multitasking”, or any other form of distraction can almost guarantee that our message to the listener is not thoroughly absorbed. The following strategies will help improve your chances of getting and holding your listeners’ attention. The results will improve your overall communication effectiveness while helping your receiver retain the communicated information.

Strategy 1 — Get the Other Persons Full Attention

When communicating with someone, make certain they are not “multitasking,” or distracted by something else. This may seem obvious, however, it may surprise you to learn how many people engage in conversations with someone who is engaged in “multitasking” or fidgeting with something while they are supposed to be listening. In the event that the other person is distracted, you can follow these steps:

  1. Let the other person finish their task before engaging in communication, or
  2. Ask the person to stop what they are doing and focus their attention on you while you speak. You may say something like, “What I am about to tell you is important. Let me know when I can have your undivided attention.”

To use the second tactic effectively, you must model the behavior you want the listener to exhibit. For example, if you are busy looking at your smart phone while speaking with the other person, the other person will more than likely see your actions as permission to model the same behavior. People often respond to behavior modeled to them with the similar behavior.

two young women looking at their smart phones

Strategy 2 — Leverage the Power of Curiosity

The more a person is curious about a topic, the more they are likely to remember the information in the future. Our brains react to curiosity like emotions. The more the person is curious about the information, the longer they store the information. Not only is the curious information kept for longer, but so is incidental information provided at the time the learner is receiving the information they are curious about.

Two tactics to leverage curiosity in getting your listener to keep information include:

Having the other person answer a question you find interesting, then delaying their answer.

If you want your listener to retain certain information, ask them an interesting question to pique their interest. After you have provided additional information, delay your response. A curious listener will retain the information if they are interested in the topic, especially if they have to wait for the response. The key is to make certain the question you ask for the information you want the other person to keep are interesting enough to them.

Review and generative questions are two types of questioning tactics that help increases a person’s curiosity about a topic.

Example review questions may include:

Do you remember our last quest speaker for the team meeting and what they discussed about _______?”, or

“Do you recall us discussing _________ last week?”

Generative questions open doors to specific topics that focus our attention. Example generative questions include:

“What is our intention with this information?”, or

“What opportunities can we see in this information/knowledge?”

Question Swapping

A second tactic for leveraging curiosity is to ask a person a question about a topic they are highly interested in discussing. However, prior to getting their response, swap their response for the questions you actually want them to recall. For example, your conversation may go something like:

“Can you share your thoughts on (topic of their interest)?” Prior to their response, you may say something like, “Oh, before you share your thoughts, I want to share my thoughts on this new campaign (or whatever topic you want them to recall later) and then I definitely want to hear your thoughts on (their topic of interest).”

By sandwiching in your comments on an unrelated topic, the listener has a better chance of recalling that information if placed on a topic they are highly interested in discussing.

Strategy 3 — Borrow Tips From Good Writing to Get and Hold a Person’s Attention

Good writers know how to engage their audience with their writing. They know how to hook readers and get them to pay attention to what they have to say. Two tactics will help leverage the strategy of getting and holding a person’s attention and getting them to remember the details.

Tactic 1: Speak clearly and get to the point.

How often have you sat through a meeting or conference just to hear a presenter communicating vaguely? They may ramble on about topics that have no importance to their subject. Chances are, you recall little information from such communication.

To get and hold a person’s attention with this strategy, speak clearly and get to the point. Attention is task-dependent and determined by the motivation of the individual in order to selectively attend to the communicator. As a result, it is best to speak clearly to get the listener’s attention and be brief so that you hold their attention. Adding frivolous filler information will distract the listener.

Tactic 2: Consider your audience.

Effective writers and communicators consider their audience before speaking or writing. Good communicators focus on what their audiences can relate to. Effective communicators are able to connect with their audiences, focusing on what they need to know. A story is only interesting to the audience if they can connect with it. People need to see how they fit within your message to hold their attention.

Final Thoughts

Yes, we all communicate in one form or another. However, for effective communication, we require the listener to focus their attention and listen to our message. There are barriers to communication that prohibit a person from fully focusing their attention. The myth of multitasking, better known as the process of task-switching, combined with technology, is a roadblock to getting and holding a person’s attention. To help us better understand how people recall information, it’s important to understand the different types of human memory. When we understand how memory works and how to leverage various strategies and tactics to get a person to pay attention, we can increase our chances of successfully creating an effective communication connection with our audience.

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