“OK fine, I didn’t have time to read it when I came across it,” you say, “but I’ll definitely finish it later!” (You don’t.)
The Internet is an amazing thing. Can you imagine trying to explain to someone from the 1960s, less than 50 years ago, that before the turn of the century they will be able to access an impossibly large repository of information—most anything you’ll ever need or want to know—from their fingertips, without leaving the house?
Today, the Internet is about as remarkable as a toothbrush. You use it every day but you hardly pay it a conscious thought. But while a toothbrush’s biggest claim to fame is cleaner teeth, the Internet is having a much deeper and more pervasive effect on us, and it’s largely going unseen.
Researchers have found that the Internet is gradually reshaping human cognition, reducing our ability to pay attention. For marketers and content creators, this is a big concern for finding good storytelling techniques, because it’s our job to get people to pay attention.
In a 2015 study published in The Neuroscientist, researchers cite evidence that shows that the Internet has changed the way our brains work.
As Internet users, we shift our attention rapidly and spend little time processing information or deliberating before making a decision. We browse, we scan, we spot keywords, and often we don’t even read things in order, skipping through the subheads and scanning the last words before dipping in and out of the content rather erratically.
In a nutshell, we’ve sort of become bored goldfish, nibbling here and there at fragments of content before quickly moving on and remembering nothing.
But why do we do this? One hypothesis is that there’s just too much information out there. Our digital plates are too full and we’re not that hungry. One popular opinion argues that shorter is always better and that marketers and content creators should get their editing machetes out ASAP. Let’s see what the science says.
In the 2011 book The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr points to a different reason for our shrinking attention spans: hypertext. Hypertext, quite simply, is text that includes links to other text. A related term, hypermedia, refers to text that contains elements like photos, video, and sound.
Marketers and content creators have long employed these rich media elements in an attempt to capture the fleeting attention of their fickle audiences. But evidence from Carr’s book suggests that some of these efforts may be backfiring, achieving exactly the opposite effect.
From a biological perspective, our brains are designed to respond to change automatically. Much like a dog that spots a squirrel in the park and instantly stops what he’s doing to chase it, we’re similarly hard-wired to respond to new stimuli, whether it be our dog bolting away or a bright blue link mid-text, inviting us to suddenly navigate away from the article we’ve been reading.
With an overabundance of elements to break our focus, it’s no wonder our brains have a hard time getting us to read beyond the headline.
If shorter content were always better, what accounts for the popularity, even in the sound-bite age of the Internet, of sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic, that still regularly publish veritable tomes online? Take this treatise on “Why America is Moving Left” published in The Atlantic, for instance—a cool 7,000 words long.
The key to effective storytelling techniques isn’t in the length but the format. How many links do you see in the text? How many photos? How many ads, sidebars, and other “rich” elements do you find? Very few.
In fact, throughout most of the article, the only view on screen is black text on a white background. For me, as a reader, this is wildly refreshing. For my brain, it’s a distraction-free environment where I can focus my attention for longer periods of time, and as a result, process the information I’m reading more deeply. For marketers and content creators, this is a compelling content strategy.
The research suggests that readers aren’t bored of our stories, they’re distracted by our storytelling techniques.
Here are five ways you as a marketer or content creator can keep your readers’ attention so the stories you’re telling achieve their maximum impact:
Sometimes our intuition about how storytelling can work most effectively isn’t actually supported by the research. Marketers and content creators that pay attention to brain science will be the first to capitalize on important discoveries that reveal how people are actually interacting with content on a deeper level. Some of the most daring content innovators may not be taking such a giant risk at all—they’ve just done their homework.
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