In school they tell you your paper must be a minimum of five pages long. In the real world you have five seconds to catch someone’s attention before they’re bored and move on.
Getting people’s attention has never been easy, but social media made it a nightmare. Someone reading a book 20 years ago had few other distractions in front of them. Today your phone offers an Olympic competition for your dopamine.
The solution for many writers has been a combination of clickbait, pandering, and fear-mongering. The loudest voice wins. But that’s short-sighted – it’s exhausting for readers, comes at the expense of long-term trust, and it’s easy to mistake people gawking at you for people paying attention to you.
I think there’s a middle ground between gaining and maintaining someone’s attention:
Get to the point. Communicating is a two-party transaction: The writer supplies content and the reader invests their precious time and attention. Both are valuable, but it’s easy for writers who labor over their words to only consider their own efforts. When a writer respects readers’ time as much as they value their own words, trust is built, and the irony is that trust makes readers want to read more of your words.
Good stories > deep lectures. You can hear a nursery rhyme as a child and remember it for life, but forget everything you learned about organic chemistry a week after the final exam. Stories stick with people in a way that a data dump of facts and formulas never can. They bind data with emotion in a way that can turn 2 + 2 into six. Matt Bird writes in his book The Secrets of Story:
Beginners believe their ideas are valuable, and will protect them with secrecy and copyright symbols on the title page. Professionals know that ideas are a dime a dozen and nobody wants to steal them. It’s only the unique expression of an idea that’s valuable. Ideas are ephemeral and the only marketable skill is good writing.
Transform gut feelings into words, explaining something people intuitively know is true but haven’t yet put into words. A new way of explaining something the reader already knows can be more powerful than teaching something new, because it generates an “ah-ha” moment without asking them to strain their brains too hard.
Be broad. Years ago I briefly wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and an editor told me: “Your job is to write something that a hedge fund manager will find informative but a complete novice will understand.” It sounds lofty, but I think it’s possible in almost any field. Writing in clear language anyone can comprehend does not mean dumbing it down – if anything it forces you to focus on the broad skills that matter most but tend to be ignored. Stephen Hawking once said of his bestselling physics books: “Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales.” Probably not wrong.
Introduce a new topic through the lens of something readers already know. It’s hard to ask people to make room in their brain for entirely new information. Asking them to leverage what they already understand to grasp a new topic is much easier. A lot of good communication is teaching by analogy – watch Richard Feynman explain the physics and chemistry of fire by telling a story about bowling balls on a trampoline.
Be timeless. With rare exceptions, I never understood promoting advice that has a shelf life. It encourages you to pander to the news cycle, and comment on things even when you have nothing to say. You also build trust when readers find value in something you wrote years ago.
There are three types of written content: You can give people information; you can give them an opinion; or you can try to change the way they think. The first is ultra-competitive. The second pulls you towards pandering. The third is, I think, by far the most powerful, and the best way to not only get but keep people’s attention.