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Nine Ways to Get and Keep Your Audience's Attention

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Getting your audience’s attention is increasingly difficult in our distraction-filled world. Part of the reason we fail may be because we are crafting our appeal to the wrong parts of our users’ brains. Instructional designer Julie Dirksen describes how attention works, and shows you several ways to attract and maintain the attention of your audience.
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One of the things I see every once in a while is some statement about people’s average attention spans. Maybe you’ve seen proclamations that the “average adult attention span is no more than 10 minutes” or 15 minutes, or 45 minutes, or…

If you think about it, this is just silly.

There’s a movie theater near my house that shows a back-to-back marathon of all the “Lord of the Rings” movies every holiday season, and it’s really well attended. And it’s the extended editions of each movie.

That’s more than 11 hours of movies. That’s the attention span of that audience—more than 11 hours.

Aside from the constraints of hunger, fatigue, and bathroom breaks, there’s really no limit on someone’s potential attention span.

What may be much more limited is the length of time someone can force themselves to pay attention. If your audience is happily romping with the hobbits, then attention is easy, but if you are asking your users to pay attention to the procedures for their health savings account, then the clock is probably ticking. You might be lucky to get 10 minutes.

I design learning experiences for people, and learning designers are very concerned with getting and maintaining our audiences’ attention. The number one rule I have is that you have to talk to the elephant.

Talking to the Elephant

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, talks about the brain being like a rider and an elephant:

    The rider is … conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. (p. 17)

So basically, he is talking about the idea that there are two parts of your brain that are in control: the conscious verbal thinking brain (the rider) and the automatic, emotional visceral brain (the elephant), as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Who’s in charge? The elephant or the rider?

The rider part of your brain is the rational, Mr. Spock, control-your-impulses, plan-for-the-future brain. Your rider tells you all sorts of useful things that you know will provide long-term benefit (“I should order a salad,” or “I really should get this homework out the way,” or “If I exercise now, I’ll have more energy later”).

The elephant, on the other hand, is your attracted-to-shiny-objects, what-the-hell, go-with-what-feels-right part of the brain. It’s drawn to things that are novel, pleasurable, comfortable, or familiar (“Mmm…French fries!” or “I should work, but HEY, look, the ‘Jersey Shore’ marathon is on!” or “I’m just going to lie down on the couch for one minute…”).

The elephant wants, but the rider restrains that wanting. This is a really useful evolutionary advantage; the rider lets people plan ahead, and allows people to sacrifice short-term wants for long-term gain (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 We all learn to sacrifice current indulgences for future gain, but it’s not always easy.

Part of the problem, though, is we have a tendency to overestimate the rider’s control. The rider is our conscious verbal thinking and because it talks to us, we tend to think it’s in control, but the elephant is bigger and stronger than the rider.

Now, sometimes the elephant is willing and goes along with the rider pretty easily. But, if you’ve ever laid in bed thinking, “I really, really need to get up now” while your hand reaches over—almost as if it’s acting on its own accord—and presses the snooze button anyway, then you know what it’s like for your rider to lose out to the elephant. Your rider is no match for a fully charging elephant running in the opposite direction shouting “SNOOZE BUTTON! SNOOZE BUTTON!!”

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