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If Goldfish Had iPhones: Capturing & Maintaining Attention

· neuroscience,Transparency,prospecting,email,presenting

I guess you could call this ironic: In the midst of working on a proposal for a client, I received a LinkedIn notification. The next thing you know, I became sidetracked - researching the subject of “attention”.

Attaining and maintaining attention: Nothing happens in sales without it, right? Prospecting, positioning, presenting, closing, signing contracts,...

The notification that set me on this course referred to a study that gained viral attention a few years ago: Have you heard the claim that our attention spans are shrinking, and now less than that of a goldfish?

Here was the study's claim:

“The average American attention span in 2013 was about 8 seconds. The average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds. And then get this kicker – the average attention of a goldfish is 9 seconds.”

I was hooked. I even used the claim in my keynotes - pictured below in one from 2017:

Unfortunately, I was a sucker.

In my studies (and I'm certainly not the only one who has come to this realization), recent research on both humans and monkeys has "put the last nail(s) in the coffin of "sustained attention".1 

Our attention span is not necessarily shrinking.

AND, there has never been a research study to measure the attention span with any confidence of a goldfish!

First, when digging into the original study, the reference is not exactly reputable regarding the "average American attention span". It was originally published NOT in a research journal, but by...Microsoft?

The study was trying to make the point that our attention spans have shrunk in the past twenty years. But have they?

It's a false premise.

(a) There has been no reputable study under the correct consistent environment to accurately measure it

(b) The recent studies which have furthered our understanding of how human "attention" actually works, it's impossible to measure.

And, oh by the way...

(c) Since there's never been an actual study of the attention span of a goldfish, we should probably stop using this comparison in our presentations...

...Although it might be fun to arm a goldfish with a series of social media accounts, drop an iPhone into its tank with notifications turned on, surround it with advertising (i.e., a billboard), then measure the impact by seeing whether it can binge a whole season of Ozark on Netflix!

What is Attention, and How Does It Work?

For us to be able to understand attention as it relates to our sales responsibilities, we must first understand how it works.

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence.” - William James, in his 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology

Attention and distraction. James goes on...from 1890!2 (feel free to skip this's an incredible description, so well written I had to include it!)

"It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.


"We all know this latter state, even in its extreme degree. Most people probably fall several times a day into a fit of something like this: The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time. In the dim background of our mind we know meanwhile what we ought to be doing: getting up, dressing ourselves, answering the person who has spoken to us, trying to make the next step in our reasoning. But somehow we cannot start; the pensée de derrière la tête fails to pierce the shell of lethargy that wraps our state about. Every moment we expect the spell to break, for we know no reason why it should continue. But it does continue, pulse after pulse, and we float with it, until - also without reason that we can discover - an energy is given, something - we know not what - enables us to gather ourselves together, we wink our eyes, we shake our heads, the background-idea become effective, and the wheels of life go round again."

We tend to think of attention acting like a spotlight. We focus on attention on something, and when ready, we move the light.1 But this is incorrect. Our brains are designed to pay attention in a strobe light manner.

Even when we are paying "attention" to something, the other areas of our brain are still exploring the rest of the world. Our eyes are paying "visual attention" to the surroundings. Our other senses are still doing their jobs, subconsciously.

While reading this article, if a snake suddenly slithered into the room, your reptilian brain would notice, and without thinking, you'd likely flee.

Ultimately, our brains are our brains. They are still our brains, and while there's shock value in telling the world that our attention is shrinking to less than that of an Asian cyprinid fish (i.e., a goldfish), it's simply not correct.

There is no such thing as human "sustained attention". 3

Keeping the strobe light aimed then focused on you has definitely gotten harder. Not due to the evolving brain, but due to the ever increasing amount of stimuli, demands and options for our attention.

Maximizing Your Odds

Here are four ways to think about gaining and maintaining attention, with links to articles that go deeper:

1) Be The Snake

Not in a deadly, make them flee sorta way. I mean by being unexpected.

Our brains make maps. It's a filing system that allows us to remove the energy required by our brain to make decisions. New prospecting "tricks" or tactics stand out...for a moment. Then, by the time you're ready to use it, if your target has already been 'tricked", they are able to quickly spot it, and delete it.

Tricks work once. They're for junior high magic shows.

What's consistently unexpected and welcome?

In prospecting, it's standing out in the inbox - by being personalized and valuable. As an executive, I was receiving > 100 email messages per day. It was easy for me to spot the prospecting ones, as they all looked the same.

You can stand out by being personalized and valuable! Remove the "I"s and "we"s from your messages and make your message about the prospect. At the very least, it'll will capture attention, standing out from the white noise of the typical "I wanted to..." message filled inbox.

It then proceeds through the sales process. Salespeople are expected to be untrustworthy. We're wired to resist being unduly "sold to" or influenced. Transparency is unexpected. Honesty is unexpected. Leading with transparency builds trust, and as a result, builds and maintains attention.

2) Frame to the target

When observing something, we are much more likely to notice if it's personal to us.

Imagine being in a noisy crowd. All the noises are blending together, to the point where you're not processing the sounds. However, someone is calling your name. Somehow, through all that noise, your brain is able to notice your name.

In the inbox, our subsconscious is able to recognize even the message preview as being something that could only be sent to us, versus that to could be sent to many. And I'm not talking about just personalizing the name. Think about these two message previews in my inbox. Which could only be sent to me?

1) "Todd, I hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy in these trying times."

2) "Todd, your book, The Transparency Sale, has changed my approach to sales."

LinkedIn is a gift. It's given us the opportunity to hyper-personalize. Do even a touch of homework. If not for you, do it for me!

I've done a lot of research on the topic of something called "Clinical Empathy". It's why doctors are able to make such a strong connection, maintain it, and have the ability to drive behavior.

3) Tell a story

If our attention span is so awful, why are so many of us binging on Netflix?

And, we don't just binge anything, we binge programs that are interesting to us.

Start by thinking about your presentations.

- Is the first slide your mission statement? The second slide your awards. Do you have a NASCAR slide with a bunch of logos on it? That ain't a story.

- No? You tell a story in your presentations? Who is the hero? Are your case studies stories about a client who had a problem, and you/your company, cape-and-all, flew to the rescue?

Stories capture the strobe-light of attention, but are considerably more likely to maintain them when we are the hero. Can you take your presentations, and instead of "this is how great we are", adjust them to "this is how great you can be"? Yes.

By following the choreography of reality makeover TV shows. Yes, I'm serious...

4) Progress quickly (the opposite of friction)

One big way sales stories that capture and maintain differ than Netflix:

Mysteries: they are great attention keepers on TV, but the opposite is true in your sales cycles.

Our brains are wired to predict. It's why negative reviews on the product page of a website, right alongside the products themselves (i.e., Amazon, or any online retailer) actually help those products sell more and faster.

It's why, in recent studies, leading with price, which has traditionally been taught to sellers as a chess move to be made late in the game, has tremendous payoffs when shared early.

Remove friction from the buying journey by helping the buying brain predict.

When done properly, we don't need to sustain the strobe light of attention for long, because decisions are made FASTER, which is what you want, anyway! You don't want six-months of attention if your sales cycles are that long, when you can shrink that requirement to three-months by helping the buying decide and execute faster, right?

And if you're going to lose, lose fast!

By doing so, you're also checking all four boxes above. You're being unexpected. You're framing to the target. You're helping them see your story in their world, where they are the hero.'re removing mystery.

So, when you see the comparison of our attention spans to that of goldfish, or really any animal, now you know!

1 "Attention Cycles", Rufin VanRullen, CeroCo, CNRS, UMR5549, Universite de Toulouse.

2 The Principles of Psychology, William James, 1890, Pages 403-404

3 Helfrich et al., 2018; Fiebelkorn et al., 2018; Kienitz et al., 2018; Spyropoulos et al., 2018

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