Roughly 99% of the information and other stimuli we receive is filtered out even before we become aware of them. It’s how our brains prevent information overload from frying our mental circuits. (Actually, many theories of attention assert that those stimuli are being weakened, vs. completely filtered out, to allow us to focus on the rest.) Understanding what we are hard-wired to pay attention to can help us write more effectively to reach our target audiences.

  • We are more likely to pay attention to things in which we have a strong interest. Lots of things interest us, but we don’t have the bandwidth to focus on all of them. So the intensity of our interest prioritizes what we notice. Signals that were weakened may suddenly get stronger the moment they contain a high-interest trigger. For example, if someone across the room mentions your name, you’re likely to suddenly tune into that conversation, even though you had been unaware of it the second before.
  • We tend to see and hear what we are predisposed or expect to (confirmation bias). And we often don’t react well when a company does something that isn’t in keeping with our expectations for the brand. Imagine the reaction if Tiffany decided to change the color of its iconic “Tiffany blue” gift boxes.
  • I’d also argue that we’re drawn to content we can consume quickly and easily, without taking up too much of our brains’ processing power, in today’s connected society with so many stimuli constantly competing for our attention (the power of Twitter).

As marketers, these insights can help us rethink our strategies for “cutting through the clutter.”

  • Make it about them (not about you). Write about what your readers are interested in, not about your product or service. What problems are keeping them up at night? Is there an emerging trend that would be important to them (or their business)? Focus on helping them solve those problems, rather than on selling your solution.
  • Train them to be interested. Writing in an interesting style with “hooky” headlines is just the price of admission. To train your audience to be interested in reading whatever you write, you need to reward their attention with something valuable, e.g., timely, relevant, actionable or thought-provoking insights and information. This requires a total commitment on your part: behavioral (operant) conditioning only works if the desired behavior is rewarded consistently.
  • Give them what they expect from you. If you’re McDonald’s, make your stories about affordable food, family and fun. If you’re Nike, inspire your audience to push their physical boundaries to achieve extraordinary accomplishments. Failing to stay true to your brand is an instant trust-breaker. (It’s no surprise that McDonald’s experiments with tablecloths and candlelight never caught on with customers.)
  • Make it easy for them to get the value. Don’t make your audience work to get your message. Use bolding, bullets, etc. judiciously to make it easy for them to get the essential value just by skimming. Write less and edit more. Make your point quickly and straightforwardly. Then stop.

Margaret Schindel is Greenough’s Senior Content Strategist. Follow her on Twitter: @strategicview1