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There’s A Science To Capturing People’s Attention

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Ben Parr, Captivating

With Ben Parr, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Dominate Fund and Author of Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention

It’s harder than ever to captivating someone’s attention in today’s world of non-stop chatter and rapid-fire information sources—and seemingly next to impossible to hold that attention for any length of time.

Ben Parr, the former editor of Mashable and co-founder of Dominate Fund and Early Stage Venture Fund, has studied the science behind capturing people’s attention and wrote a book about it called Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention.

Even with all the distraction in our world today, there are those Masters of Attention, as Ben calls them, who are skilled at breaking through all the noise to captivate their audience, whether it be for business, entertainment, or for any important message.

These Masters of Attention are particularly adept at taking their audience from immediate, to short, and then to long term attention, by using a key set of psychological triggers called captivation triggers.

Initially, in the immediate stage, there must be a disruption trigger, something that makes us sit up and take notice, a reaction to a sight or sound stimuli such as a gunshot or a blazing bonfire. These triggers elicit a reaction, but from there, you could lose your audience quickly without a good follow-up. So what follows is the rewards trigger which could be something visual and tactile—think of Oprah’s famous audience gift-giving—or something motivational or self-satisfying, such as might be offered by a televangelist.

Going more deeply into the science of captivology, Ben talks about the framing trigger, a most important concept based on the idea that most people feel comfortable with those ideas and things that fall within their range of experience, something familiar within their culture.

Another critical point is the mystery trigger such as the anticipation we feel when we’re engaged with a television series that leaves us with an unresolved conclusion at the end of each segment or one that violates general expectations.  Ben uses Game of Thrones as an example of a show that veers off from the typical storyline with the hero always prevailing. We don’t know what to expect, the hero sometimes fails or dies, so our attention is captured.

The most powerful of all the captivation triggers, says Ben, is the acknowledgment trigger, the one that makes us “pay attention to the people and the things that pay attention to us and provide us with validation and acknowledgment and empathy and understanding.”

In the business world, perhaps one of the most interesting triggers is the reputation trigger, the phenomenon that we pay attention to reputable sources. If we have a trusted expert in front of us, in most cases, our decision-making channels go dormant, as though we uploaded the processing power of our brain to the expert.

Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention delves much deeper into the science behind this concept.

After you’ve gone through all the various triggers, Ben believes that the use of positive emotional re-enforcement and positive emotional validation goes a long way toward  sustaining the attention of your audience.


Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: Ben Parr is the co-founder of Dominate Fund and Early Stage Venture Fund.  He’s a columnist for Ink Magazine and was named by Forbes as one of its current “30 under 30” and by Stat Social for its top 100 social media power influencers.  Today I want to talk about his book titled, Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention. What can this science of attention tell us about how we can captivate?  If you’re trying to get noticed in business or in entertainment or for important causes you’re passionate about, this is the book to get.  Captivology is the name of the book and Ben Parr is the author and my guest.  Ben, welcome to the show.  It’s a pleasure to have you.

Ben Parr: Thank you for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: This is a book about the science of capturing people’s attention.  Twenty years ago that would’ve sounded rather simple, perhaps, but, today with so many choices and distractions, it’s very hard to break through all the noise and to tell your story, yet some do.  How do they do it?

Ben Parr: They are masters of attention as I call them.  What they do is they walk their audience through what I call the three stages of attention.  They go from immediate attention, to short attention, to long attention.  What they really focus on is getting attention over the long term.  I talk a lot about this in the book, but it really focuses in on a key set of psychological triggers that capture our attention across these three stages.  I call them captivation triggers.  The masters of attention have inadvertently become masters at utilizing these triggers to get the attention of their audience.

Steve Pomeranz: You mention this metaphor of “building a bonfire” of attention.  Take us through that.

Ben Parr: When you’re building a bonfire, the first step is the spark, it’s that fire starter.  I call that immediate attention.  Immediate attention is our immediate automatic response to sight or sound stimuli.  It’s how we react when you hear a gunshot, but you also need kindling.  Kindling is short attention in my model.  Short attention is our short term focus on a specific object.  It’s when we become conscious of something.  What the real goal is to build a bonfire to get a big growing fire and that requires logs and that’s long attention.  That’s a long-term interest in something.  Think of the three stages as your reaction in seconds versus maybe minutes and hours in short attention versus days, months, years, lifetimes with long attention.

Steve Pomeranz: Also kindling is very ethereal. With a little bit of wind can blow out the kindling.  How do you prevent that from happening?

Ben Parr: A lot of people, the mistake they make when they’re trying to get attention for maybe their project or their art or their passion or their idea is they focus too much on the short term.  They do something maybe that is out of left field.  I call that the disruption trigger.  They get people to turn their heads, but they don’t do something afterward to get people to stick around to build a long term relationship with their audience.  That’s what you have to do.  You have to go into that next stage of long attention.  You have to build upon that kindling.

Steve Pomeranz: How do you go to the next stage then?  Maybe the kindling if you are to do something that’s out of the ordinary to get people’s attention is very short.  I think you mentioned using certain color combinations on a website or something that you’re putting out.  You mentioned the gunshot that will grab your attention.  What are some ideas that take you to that next step to the inner media?

Ben Parr: For example, I talk a lot in the book about rewards, the rewards trigger, and I talk about how there are two types of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic.  Extrinsic words are like money, food, sex, very visual things.  The research shows that they do actually capture attention at the automatic level, but they don’t keep our attention for long.  You have to use the instrinsical words after extrinsical words to get people’s attention— intrinsical words, motivational things like self-purpose and mastery and self-satisfaction.

You know, the greatest employers, for example, utilize both those short- term extrinsical words and those intrinsical long-term rewards in conjunction to motivate their teams to stick around for a long-term.  It’s really about thinking about how do you both capture the short-term attention and long term attention and walking your audience through those stages.

Steve Pomeranz: You do mention what you call these triggers that go on in our responses in the mind.  You just mentioned the reward trigger.  Let’s go through some of them, some of this list here.  The first one mentioned here is the automaticity trigger.  Tell us about that.

Ben Parr: The automaticity trigger is the first captivation trigger.  It is that we have an automatic reaction to certain stimuli and sensory inputs, specifically colors and sounds.  Based on the contrast they have with their surroundings and associations we have with them.

Steve Pomeranz: We’ve discussed that.  That would be the gunshot.

Ben Parr: Yes, but there’s more to it than just that.  For example, if you’re hitchhiking on the side of the road, what color of shirt do you think you should wear as the best shot to being picked up?

Steve Pomeranz: Red.  I don’t know.  The answers to all questions about that is red.  I think I understand that, but go ahead.  What is the answer to that?

Ben Parr: For a man, most bright colors work just fine because of contrast they have with their surroundings.  Our eyes automatically go towards brighter colors when they’re on dark backgrounds like you would have on the side of the road.  A research study found that if a woman wears a red shirt versus any other color, they’ll be on average picked up more than 50% of the time because of the unconscious association we have with red.  As you think about what are those subconscious associations we have with each color and how that affects our attention.

Steve Pomeranz: Very good.  The next one is the framing trigger.  Does that interrelate?

Ben Parr: Absolutely.  Framing is a really important concept, and it’s that we view the world and we pay attention to the things that fall within our frame of reference.  It’s the reason, for example, why if you have a discussion with somebody about global warming or gun control, you’ll have two completely different reactions from two people with the same information.  Your goal is to figure out what your audience’s frame of reference is, what their cultural background is, whether they’re busy right now or later, when is the optimal time, and either adapt to it or try to change it in some way.  Really, it comes down to what is your audience’s frame of reference?

Steve Pomeranz: This word “framing” has more to do with context.  Understanding the context of a particular person’s point of view and either deciding to accept it and to go along with it in terms of trying to communicate or to try to change it.  Am I correct in that?

Ben Parr: Yeah.  Years ago there was a teenage entrepreneur who tried to put out a new deodorant called Odorono, and she was having trouble.  One of the reasons was because people didn’t think it was healthy to use, but her father was a surgeon who invented it so they advertised that fact.  They adapted that into the reference because they knew people were worried about health issues.  When you advertise the fact that it was made by a doctor, it made it much more palatable to their audience.

Steve Pomeranz: Very, very good point.  The 3rd one is the disruption trigger.  What is that?

Ben Parr: The disruption trigger is a very powerful trigger.  It is that we pay attention to the things that violate our expectations.  For example, we’re sitting and having coffee and a person just comes and just sits down next to us.  We’re going to pay attention, right?

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Ben Parr: The reason is because we make an automatic threat assessment of that person.  If this person a friend of ours who’s going to visit a hospital or is this person about to mug us.  We’re making assessment anytime something is out of place because it could be a threat or it could be a positive development.  The crazy things, shock advertising or maybe like the Old Spice campaign or things are just out of place do capture our attention very strongly.

Steve Pomeranz: You use a few examples from some popular shows and artists.  For example, Game of Thrones has been able to create a huge niche in popularity, whereas there are dozens of shows even more that are in the same genre.  What do they do that’s different?

Ben Parr: In this context, one of the big things they did was violate people’s expectation.  People expect in most story lines that you have a hero who has struggles but overcomes them and is victorious at the end of the day.  That is not what happens in the Game of Thrones.  Your favorite characters, your heroes, they could be killed off and are killed off at any given moment and there is no such thing as like the hero prevails.  There is no typical story-line.  That fact alone has made people turn their heads because now they don’t know what to expect and what’s going to happen next and they have to talk about what happens with a lot of the major plot points that really shock people.

Steve Pomeranz: I guess the idea of just having a show that has a serial does that too because you’re waiting to see.  Like right now I’m hooked on Homeland.  I think there is a lot of shock value with that.  You don’t really know what to expect and you just can’t wait until the next episode.  Is that part of this as well?

Ben Parr: That actually goes to another one of my captivation triggers, which is the mystery trigger.  Science shows that we pay attention to mysteries because we remember incomplete storylines and incomplete tasks better than complete ones.  We don’t like the uncertainty of an incomplete story or incomplete or uncertainty, in general, so we try and complete that story.  If you have a great serial that has a good cliffhanger every week, make people come back because they want to figure out what happened.  They don’t want to have that uncertainty lingering in their lives.

Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Ben Parr and the book is Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention. What can the science of attention tell us about how we can captivate?  You can see why I said that if you’re looking for attention for your business or for a cause you’re passionate about or whatever it may be, there’s a lot of distraction in our world today.  This book includes some very specific ideas of what’s actually going on and how you can break through the noise.  You mentioned before the reward trigger, do these shows or do these artists that seem to be able to last year after year after year, is this part of the long-term type of attention you’re talking about?  How do you actually develop that?  What trigger do they use for that?

Ben Parr: There’s a couple that matter but the most powerful trigger for long-term attention is the acknowledgement trigger.  That is the most powerful of all the captivation triggers, is that we pay attention to the people and the things that pay attention to us and provide us with validation and acknowledgment and empathy and understanding.  Research shows that …  One of the interesting things actually is when I did the research for this book, I sat down with Dr. Thomas who’s the author and mediated in Adrian who’s been in Jason’s entourage.

We had this discussion about celebrity culture because the two of them did a documentary on celebrity culture.  What we really realized was that the reason we pay attention to celebrities is not just because they’re big figures in our lives, but it’s because they’re a piece of our identity.  They represent us in some way.  It says something about you whether you’re a fan or Justin Bieber or Rachael Ray or Sheryl Sandberg.

Steve Pomeranz: It seems like the invention of Twitter is used to continue that idea because, in a sense, you have an artist or a celebrity who is tweeting and it seems like they’re tweeting to you, so you feel like you know them personally.  Of course, they don’t know you at all, but you have this feeling that you know them personally.

Ben Parr: There’s a scientific term for this.  It’s called the para-social relationship.  It’s our capability to have a two-way relationship with somebody when it’s actually a one-way relationship.  I remember a friend of mine telling me a story of how …  She works for a celebrity and the celebrity came out in favor of Obamacare and suddenly a portion of her fan base was posting messages like, “How could you do this? I thought I knew you.  You’ve betrayed me,” which is a weird statement when these people never met the celebrity before.

We have the capability to feel like we have that kind of direct relationship.  The best celebrities and the best brands and the best, in general, masters of attention are able to build this para-social relationship.  The audience feels like they know who this person is and this person provides validation for their audience by talking with them, by discussion with them, by giving gifts to them, by doing things for the audience showing that they care.

Steve Pomeranz: There was an example about Beyonce in a Walmart.  Tell us about that.

Ben Parr: When Beyonce’s album came out last year, she walked into a Walmart after it was already becoming a best seller and she just started meeting fans.  She didn’t announce it.  She just came, started meeting fans, and then she bought gifts for everybody there.  She spent a very small amount of money to her, but it got international attention and a ton of press.  The thing that happened there was that it showed that she cared about her fans.  She didn’t have to give a gift to every single one of her fans.  Just the mere fact that they knew that she was giving gifts to her fans made it feel like she was giving gifts to all of them.

Steve Pomeranz: It’s almost like Oprah when she gives out, or she gave out those gifts once a year to her audience.

Ben Parr: Absolutely.  Oprah and Taylor Swift and a couple of these others are fantastic at this para-social relationship by gift-giving but also just providing that concept like, “I care about you,” or talking with members, their fans, or doing things for charity.  These little things add up over time.

Steve Pomeranz: I remember when I was young, I had numerous relationships that were para-social.  I thought there was a two-way relationship going on but there was actually just a one-way relationship going on.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced that to some degree.  We talked about these triggers and there’s the reputation trigger.  What is that?

Ben Parr: The reputation trigger is a very interesting phenomenon and it’s that we pay attention to reputable sources.  Actually, experts, authority figures in the crowd.  There’s one study done at Emory University where they measure the brain activity of students.  In half the cases they would make economic decisions to their money.  If you can imagine, the critical thinking decision-making channels of the brain would light up when they’re making decisions with money.  In half the cases an expert would come and talk to them and give them a piece of advice, and when the expert gave them advice the brains basically shut down.

Their decision-making channels went dormant.  It’s as if they uploaded the processing power of their brain to the expert.  It shows how much we pay attention and trust an expert.  It’s called direct indifference.  This phenomenon is doubled when the research also shows that we trust experts of all types of spokespeople in a company more than CEOs or people like us or other employees of the company.

Steve Pomeranz: There are seven triggers you’ve mentioned here.  We’ve gone through all of them.  Let’s talk about some other strategies.  Let me mention one, in particular.  When you talk about the dissemination of public information—getting the public to focus on facts of certain events instead of fear and perhaps panic.  Ebola or Zika, for example, comes to mind because some new stories are reasoned stories explaining the facts while others are very …  Make you very excited and worried and fearful.  How can we tell the difference between whether we’re being manipulated in that way?  How can public information and even businesses that are trying to get their message across?

Look, in my business you have a lot of media selling fear, selling excitement, and adrenalin rush and that has some negative consequences, whereas reasoned thinking and outlook really makes a difference. We have a website Onthemoneyradio.org which we really try to disseminate this information in a reasonable conflict interest-free environment.  How does public information, how does the government disseminate this information correctly?

Ben Parr: That’s a hard one because the issue at a lot of times when you’re giving just straight facts is that people don’t resonate with them as much as emotional resonance.  There’s actually a term for this as well.  There was a study, it’s called identifiable victim It’s, essentially, if you give someone a story with the statistics about starvation in an African country or you give them a story of one little girl and her struggle, people will donate much more to that struggle because they can put themselves in their shoes.  The emotional element always has to be there.

I’ve learned from all my research that positivity over the long term really does trump all. The issue with the media today is that they’re really focusing on this kind of short-term gains.  Over the long-term they’re going to probably suffer.  I think a lot of it has to do with …  For example, Buzzfeed I think is a good example of some that have done very good with positivity and getting the information out, but they use positive emotional re-enforcement and positive emotional validation.  When you think about the kind of articles they write, you don’t see the negativity there.

They are one of the largest media sites in the world.  It’s clearly possible to do it.  It’s just a matter of people knowing how the scientific attention works.  I believe if they understand and then they read Captivology and they understand how the attention works, they would be much more able to defend their attention against this kind of shock advertising and this kind of fear-based news cycle.

Steve Pomeranz: I totally agree and that’s why we’re talking to you right now.  The book is Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, what can the science of attention tell us about how we can captivate.  I guess, also, Ben, how we are captivated by these things.  My guest is Ben Parr.  Ben, thank you so much.  This is a great book and really quite helpful.  Take care.

Ben Parr: Thank you so much.