By Nicole Pearce                                                                               March 16, 2018


Our society is saturated with information, making it harder and harder to break through the noise and grab one’s attention. In a 2015 study, Microsoft found that the average human attention span is rapidly declining. Many attribute this drop to the proliferation of technologies and the amount of information available. Scientists can now also identify how long most people pay attention before they tune out. In the presentation world, TED organizers identified that 18 minutes works best. Nobody, no matter how famous, wealthy, or influential, is allowed to speak more than 18 minutes on a TED stage. But here’s the point about attention span research that people seem to misunderstand. Your brain is always on and collecting information, which means it is constantly choosing what to pay attention to and what to filter out. The point is not that people cannot hold their attention longer, it’s that they are selective when choosing where to focus their attention. It’s amazing to consider that a given thought can be generated and acted on in less than 150 milliseconds!


So how do we influence where audiences choose to focus their attention?

1. Simple is better

In a world crowded with complexity, simplicity stands out. When a lot of messages compete for someone’s attention people don’t know where to focus. Your messages need to be to clear and direct. We’re more believable when we speak in plain terms. Simplicity inspires greater trust and deeper loyalty in consumers of the message. A 2011 NYU study found that, “statements of the very same content were judged as more true when they were written in concrete language than when they were written in abstract language.” Does it get any more simple and recognizable than “Just do it?”

2. Tap into emotion

People rarely take action based on facts and reason alone. Research shows that emotion plays an overwhelming role in decision making. How you make people feel – welcome, comforted, excited, happy, etc. – influences how they behave. To evoke strong positive feelings that engage your audience you need to look closely at the nonverbal elements of your messaging; i.e. your visuals, images, colors and sounds. Communication studies show that 93% of what people respond to is non-verbal. Show and tell. One study found that while slightly more people will remember a brand immediately after seeing an emotional ad (compared to those who have seen a non-emotional one), significantly more people will remember a brand a few weeks or months later if the ad they saw was emotional. If you identify a way to connect with your audience emotionally, your message will be the one they remember.

3. Repetition, repetition, repetition

In a world full of noise, repetition helps important messages sink in. Research proves messages are more effective when repeated. First identified in 1977, the illusory truth effect is our tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure. In other words, the more someone hears your message, the more believable it is. If we are exposed to the same message again and again, it becomes more familiar. And therefore, feels truer than something we have heard for the first time. You may feel like a broken record, but your message will stand out as most important when it is heard multiple times. While first labeled in 1977, using repetition to reinforce a message was not a new tactic. A famous example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the March on Washington in 1963, where the refrain, “I have a dream”, is repeated eight times. In communications, a few points repeated multiple times are those most remembered.


At Powell Strategies, we specialize in cutting through the clutter to create communication and outreach strategies for variety of audiences across the federal, private, and non-profit industry. We do this by understanding the challenges of our clients, bringing a team with cultural competence and understanding to deliver messages that resonate, and delivering high quality communication consulting through a collaborative and open dialogue approach. In a business environment that’s more complex and dynamic than ever, let us help you win the race.