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Do You Always Have to Holler?

The currency of attention.

During a study conducted several years ago, a research team at the Stanford University School of Medicine learned something counterintuitive about how the human brain processes streams of information. In the team’s experiment, 18 people without formal musical training spent time individually in an MRI machine, listening to classical music while their brain activity was recorded.

We pay attention to transitions. Our brains wait for and watch for and anticipate them.

Classical music is composed of movements—separate portions that differ in tone or mode and might be separated by moments of silence or smoothly segue one to the next. Strikingly, the activity in the right brain didn’t peak during, say, the loudest or softest portion of a movement, but at the moment between movements—“when seemingly nothing was happening,” Stanford Medicine News Center reported.

Fascinating. We pay attention to transitions. Our brains wait for and watch for and anticipate them—a pattern that affects us every day as we take in streams of information in our own worlds, searching the web, encountering ads, flipping through magazines.

In turn, brands and organizations have to work harder and smarter to stand out within the stream, earning the eyes and ears of clients and consumers, due to what many call attention scarcity. We’re bombarded by media, by opinions, by choices. And so we jealously guard how we spend each moment and where we invest ourselves. Attention is a valuable currency we finger carefully in our pockets.

When we do have a few moments to revel in something that’s not required, how do we wish to invest this hard-earned currency? (What’s the ROI of you paying attention to this right now?)

Flip the conversation around. What are we creating, in hopes of garnering someone else’s attention? Of course, the greatest assumption is that what we labor over is worthy of that currency. Not only that it’s crafted beautifully but that it contains a truth worth proclaiming, a story worth telling.

What does all this mean for those engaging in the endeavor of hollering for someone’s attention? How do we grab (and keep) our audience’s attention?

Chip Heath, author and Stanford professor of business strategy, puts it succinctly: “Break a pattern,” he advises in Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.

In other words, offer breathing space. Switch things up.

Writers know that the most crucial parts of any paragraph—where we invest our energies if we want our point to stick—are the first sentence and the last sentence. The transition points. That’s where we labor to insert the liveliest verb, the emotive combination of noun and adjective. We might punch the beginning with a staccato rhythm, or wind up a final sentence with intensity.

Similarly, art directors know that design needs both the impact of sharp graphics or stirring photography and the clean calmness of white space. “White space is also called negative space,” says art director Seth Nickerson, a Journey Group art director. “It counteracts the ‘positive’ space.”

Yet the decision as to how much negative space is needed is driven by the effect or mood you’re trying to create. Nickerson brings our attention once again to the world of music. “You might want to create a wall of sound,” he says, “or build something very quiet, or alternate between quiet and loud, or build slowly to a crescendo.

“For example, Cereal Magazine is quiet, with lots of white space. I think of Wired as alternating, with lots of contrast. Eight by Eight is a dense, layered wall of sound.”

Yet regardless of how well we create these rhythms, we won’t captivate someone if we don’t have a clear sense of the “someone” whose attention we seek (not to mention the noise and messages we’re competing with). Better still: If we can connect our truths and our stories with our audience’s deepest desires, we’re offering far more than words and images on paper and pixel.

Nonprofit marketer Devin Hermanson writes about what he calls our Intimacy Era—when people are expecting more transparency and authenticity from the organizations with which they interact. While he focuses on philanthropy, he sees application for government and entertainment sectors as well. Tell stories well, he advises; make real for your audience how they are part of something bigger, and you’ll have grabbed their heart.

“The organizations that respond with amazing, authentic, donor experiences fueled by an evolving form of storytelling will be the ones that thrive,” he believes.

Jonathan Gottschall agrees. The author of The Storytelling Animal calls humans “homofictus”—or “fiction man”—stating that the way we learn and process our experiences through the filter of stories is essential to what makes us human.

In his 2014 TEDx Talk, Gottschall points to a study that took place in the 1940s: A group of 120 individuals were asked to watch a short, rudimentary film in which basic geometric shapes moved and bumped around (watch the film at 3:32.) Afterward, when asked what they saw, only three viewers mentioned seeing simple shapes on a screen. The 117 others saw some small tale of romance, comedy or tragedy.

Gottschall calls it the “brain on story”: “It’s not only that our mind is capable of taking these raw, crude, geometrical cues and turning them into a rich, confident story. It’s that most of us can’t not do it. . . . We do it automatically, reflexively, without even trying.”

Further, Gottschall says that when we engage with a story, neuroscience shows that our brain activity more closely reflects that of a participant, not a spectator. We experience the emotions directly.

“Without story to organize your experience on earth, you’d experience your life as a blooming, buzzing confusion,” he said in his TEDx talk. “It would be all sound and fury; it would signify nothing. Nothing in human experience rivets attention, hooks human attention, holds human attention, like a story.”

StoryBrand, the company of author and consultant Donald Miller, helps bring to bear the influence of stories for corporations. If you want people to better share your passion for something, frame it in a story. StoryBrand helps brands such as Chick-fil-A teach storytelling to its staff, to help everyone better communicate the company’s mission. And the company’s website leads the way by inviting customers to tell their Chick-fil-A-related stories, both serious and silly—from the way caring employees calmed them after a frightening cancer diagnosis, to how they’re celebrating the restaurant’s Cow Appreciation Day.

Make real for your audience how they are a part of something bigger, and you’ll have grabbed their heart.

After all, everyone has a story to tell. Or as Ross Hagan puts it, “We’re all the heroes of our own story.” Hagan works as director of story at Whiteboard, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based creative firm. And he’s done some serious thinking about storytelling and heroes. Too many companies are saying, “We have something to tell you, to sell you” without listening to their customers. “That’s like trying to insert yourself as the hero in my story,” he says.

Whiteboard tries to help its clients listen more closely to their customers’ stories. Hagan cites the example of Apple, a company whose ads basically say: “Use our product to do what you want to do and make yourself everything you want to be.”

Some people take the storytelling concept even further—inviting clients into stories.

Urban Ministries of Durham is one nonprofit that’s powerfully involving people in its own reality: fighting poverty and connecting homeless clients with the resources needed to attain stability.

Through UMD’s PlaySpent.org, potential donors can play a game that illuminates the choices and obstacles homeless Americans face every day. “You ran out of money on day 13,” the site might tell you after you join the game and maneuver—with an imaginary child—through a myriad of financial hits. The final page, as the balance in the corner reads $0, invites you to “Give $10 to help someone living SPENT.”

McKinney is the creative spark behind SPENT—and a multitude of other clever campaigns for organizations as varied as ESPN, Nationwide Insurance and Travelocity. “The game designers at McKinney used real scenarios faced by our clients and treated them with compassion and humanity,” announced Patrice Nelson, executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, in a July 2014 press release. “SPENT has also raised an impressive amount of donation income, enough to end homelessness for 14 people.”

With more than 4 million total plays, the agency released the game in HTML for mobile use last year.

“Nothing in human experience hooks human attention like a story.”
jonathan gottschall

Being invited into the story of a brand obviously creates a powerful personal experience for we who are “homofictus.”

After all, we’re ultimately relational creatures—returning time and again to those who have gained our trust and thus earned the valuable currency of our attention. Our audience is the same. May we catch their attention by how well we know our craft and their needs, but keep their attention because we’ve become a trustworthy voice.

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