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From the author of Getting the Elephant’s Attention

Getting the Elephant’s Attention

So, how do you attract and engage the elephant? There are a number of ways to attract and retain the elephant’s attention, as shown in the following sections.

#1: Use Urgency

The elephant is creature of immediacy. It’s pretty content to let the rider worry about the future. Things that are going to happen in the future, regardless of how dire they are, are less compelling to the elephant than things that are happening right now. If you are talking to teens about smoking, the immediate social consequences are far more compelling than the hypothetical health issues that could occur years down the line.

#2: Show, Don’t Tell

The elephant is pretty smart. It’s not just going to take your word for it that something is important. It wants to see and feel the importance. This is one of the golden rules of fiction writing and movie making: Avoid heavy-handed exposition, and use visuals, action, and dialogue instead. You can tell the rider that “this is really important,” but the elephant wants to see proof—it’s not just going to take your word for it.

#3: Tell a Compelling Story

Use classic storytelling elements to create a compelling scenario. Have a protagonist who is trying to accomplish a goal. Have an antagonist who is preventing the protagonist from accomplishing that goal. Have obstacles along the way that the protagonist must overcome. Have an inciting incident that sets up the drama of the story.

#4: Create Interesting Dilemmas

Give your audience interesting choices to make. Dilemmas will capture interest if they are done well. Instead of telling people all the things they can do to conserve electricity, give them five options and have them figure which three will give them the most energy savings; let them debate the benefit of energy-saving light bulbs versus insulating the water heater.

#5: Surprise It

When researchers test people using expected and unexpected rewards, there is greater activation of anticipation and rewards structures in the brain when the reward is unexpected.

For example, when I was growing up, I got a birthday card from my grandmother every year with a check for five dollars. While it was really sweet of her to do that, the five dollars itself stopped being particularly exciting after about the age of 12. There was always pleasure at the gesture, but very little buzz at the money itself.

I compare that to the feeling I get when I’m are walking down the street and find five dollars lying on the ground, with no obvious owner in sight (“Woo hoo!”). The amount of money is five dollars in both examples, but the reaction is very different, due to the unexpectedness.

We seem to react more strongly to unexpected rewards, which probably has a functional aspect. Basically, if something is good, we want to remember that because we want more.

If something is bad, we want to remember that too, so we can avoid it in the future. But if something is exactly the way we thought it would be, there’s really no reason allocate mental resources to reinforcing that.

#6: Leave Information Out

As my mother’s first line of technical support, I spend a lot of time on the AOL home page whenever she has a technology issue.

The AOL home page has a freakish ability to get me to follow article links, frequently for things that I don’t care about at all:

  • Which 80s child star now has three wives?
  • Eight reasons to avoid lip balm
  • The surprising truth about minivans

I really don’t care about any of these things, yet find myself strangely compelled to click on them (I actually made up that list, but you get the idea). Whoever writes headlines for the AOL home page is a genius at tweaking my curiosity. It’s shallow curiosity, but it still gets me to click on their link.

George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology, describes curiosity as “arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”

Curiosity is a very compelling way to attract the elephant, and telling less rather than more can really draw the elephant in.

#7: Create Dissonance

Another form of surprise happens when we bump into something that doesn’t match to our view of the world. Let’s say you are walking down the street one day, and you see a purple dog. You probably have a pretty detailed mental model for dogs, but unless you have a traumatic dog-painting incident in your childhood, you probably don’t have “purple” as part of your dog mental model.

So when you see the dog, you are comparing what you see with your existing formula for dogs (right size, right shape, right texture, right movement, right sounds = yep, it’s a dog), but it’s not the right color. There’s enough there that does match your definition of dog, so you really don’t question that, but you do stop at the color.

Now you have two opposing ideas in your head: “That’s a purple dog” and “Dogs are not purple.”

The term for this is cognitive dissonance. Stuff just doesn’t add up based on what you know about the world. You need to reconcile those two opposing viewpoints. How do you go about doing that? Explanations could include:

  • “Somebody spray-painted that poor dog.”
  • “I’m seeing things.”
  • “Maybe there really are purple dogs…”

In the last example, you are considering whether to reconcile and expand your mental model for dogs to include purple. When you create these moments of cognitive dissonance, you can really capture the elephant’s attention.

#8: Make It Visceral

We live in a world full of abstractions: Credit cards stand in for actual money, virtual selves stand in for our actual selves, statistics stand in for actual people. This is necessary for our modern society to operate efficiently, but abstractions speak to the rider, not the elephant.

One way to engage the elephant is to make the experience visceral and real using emotional context or physical interaction with real tangible objects and people. In the fruit salad versus cake experiment, people were more likely to take the cake if they could see it, rather than being presented with an abstract choice.

#9: Tell It All the Other Elephants Are Doing It

We all have tremendous demands on our attention, and one of the shortcuts we use to determine how to allocate that attention is to see what other people are doing. From Amazon reviews to street crowds to topics on Twitter, we are more willing to investigate if other people (particularly other people we know or respect) are already engaged. If you are trying to engage the elephant, think about how to make other people’s interest or experiences visible to the elephant (see Figure 4). Can they see other people using a new product, or trying a new process? Can you make sure that people’s success stories are visible and accessible?

Figure 4 One of things that causes the elephant to pay attention is if others are already interested.

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