Picture the 1950s classroom—rows of students in impeccable school uniforms, silently copying from the board in flawless manuscript. The teacher, dressed in square cap and cloak, slowly paces up and down. If a pupil as much as coughs, thwack! The wooden ruler slams on the knuckles.
Those were the good old days—the golden age of schooling. Just like marketers could rely on polite audiences in the golden age of advertising, teachers could rely on fearful students to give them their undivided attention.
Fast forward to today. If a teacher from that age could see a modern classroom, he or she would faint on the spot. Students chewing gum? Arriving late? Playing with spinning toys? Likewise, if a marketer from the golden age of advertising could see the rise of ad blockers, subscriptions to ad-free content, and the general revulsion against interrupt advertising, they would have a similar reaction. So what’s happened?
Teachers and marketers often lament that attention spans are getting shorter. During my ten years as an ESL teacher, I was convinced it was true. But as screenwriting guru Robert McKee pointed out, to say the human attention span is getting shorter would imply a change at the genetic level. The oft-cited statistic about humans having shorter attention spans than goldfish is, fortunately, fake news. As psychology lecturer Dr. Gemma Briggs says, the notion of an “average attention span” is meaningless: “[Attention is] very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.”
And upon reflection, the same millennials who apparently have such terribly short attention spans seem to have little trouble binge-watching Netflix for hours at a time.
The problem is not of attention span but of engagement. The golden age is over. Teachers cannot rely on the stick and advertisers cannot rely on the politeness of audiences. So let’s stop pining for the golden age and get down to the real problem—how to engage audiences.
Image attribution: Les Anderson
They way to engage audiences is with stories. For millennia, humans have used stories to communicate important messages about life, death, and everything under the sun. According to the world’s foremost educator on story form, Robert McKee, stories actually engage the audience by hooking, holding, and rewarding their attention. And it works. In fact, when information is presented in a story, recall improves by a factor of twenty-two. That’s why we have always used stories to communicate and not some kind of prehistoric PowerPoint on stone tablets (there’s a reason no one can remember the Ten Commandments).
But story for entertainment is not quite enough. As teachers or marketers, our jobs are to influence and motivate our audience to action. Teachers want the students to do their homework, of course, but they also want students to apply their knowledge and skills in the wider world. Marketers want their audience to come away with a positive image of the brand, or to take a step on the buyer’s journey.
This fourth step, that of motivation, is the final ingredient of a purpose-told story—a story designed to influence or motivate a consumer to action.
As a teacher, long before I had studied story form, I had developed techniques to hook, hold, and reward attention, and then motivate students to action. These techniques can be applied to an article, presentation, film, infographic, or any piece of content you care to name.
The beginning of class can be chaotic. It’s vital to get everyone’s attention. The “hook” could be anything—a difficult challenge or puzzle, a mystery object, a video clip. The classroom hook needs to defy the student’s expectations and activate their curiosity while preparing them for what they are about to learn. The hook applies equally well in any form of content. Start with an intriguing statistic or a frank statement. Hell, go negative—that’ll get their attention, as long as you have some turning points and changes in the remaining content to hold their attention.
You’ve hooked their attention. But now comes the hard part. You have to hold their attention. The human brain becomes habituated to constant, unchanging stimuli like a ticking clock. But if the ticking clock stops, that change attracts our attention. The hook was the first “change” and to hold their attention, you need more.
As a teacher, I quickly learned that repetitive classwork, or my own voice droning on endlessly, was a guaranteed way to lose the class. To hold their attention, I’d vary the activity every ten minutes. In marketing, make sure your content is not a solid wall of text without breaks, and whatever you do, don’t bombard the audience with overly positive messaging.
Image attribution: Climate KIC
As a teacher, giving positive praise was always important. But students often look beyond praise and wonder whether paying attention is ultimately worth their while. English classes can be entertaining, but students don’t invest in them for fun. As students of English as a foreign language, the real rewards were the linguistic tools that enabled effective communication in English. In fact, the “reward” of the lesson is the starting point of the lesson plan. We expressed this reward using the phrase “can-do”—what will the lesson enable students to do? It’s a fundamental component of lesson design that is often (sadly) overlooked by teachers, who fall back on teaching grammar without articulating how the grammar will empower the student.
Audiences generally want something in exchange for their attention. In marketing, the audience of your content often wants to find an answer to a question or learn how to do something. I have seen too much content lacking a clear “can-do” or takeaway. Without a reward, audiences will not come back for more. So ask yourself before the creation process, what are the takeaways of the content? What tool are you offering? What will the audience understand or be able to do once they have consumed your content?
I’ve hooked the students’ attention with a stimulus. I’ve managed to hold their attention by varying the activities. I’ve rewarded their attention because now students are able to effectively communicate using the target language. But how do I motivate them to do their homework, literally and figuratively? How do I get them to take ownership of their learning and practice what they have learned?
Unknowingly, this was the beginning of my marketing career. I had to make the case for learning English. Luckily, this was not a hard sell. English is the de facto lingua franca in the world and dominates the Internet, the entertainment industry, and the scientific community. By making the case for English, I motivated students to keep pushing themselves, to keep coming to class, and even to recommend my class to others. As marketers, you already know that you need to influence or motivate your audience to action, but as with teaching, you’ll see the best results right at the moment of reward and not before.
Want to learn more about how to hook, hold, and reward attention in your brand messaging? Attend an upcoming Storynomics seminar with Robert McKee and Tom Gerace.
Featured image attribution: NeONBRAND