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Seven Sure-Fire Ways to Lose an Audience's Attention

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Want to make sure your message doesn't get through? That your campaign disappears without a trace? That your communication program suffers a quick, painful death?

Then be sure to try one of these attention-stoppers. If, however, you'd like to successfully get your audience's attention, you might want to do the opposite of each of the following "7 Deadly Sins of Poor Communication."

1. Make it all about 'me'

A well-known healthcare company publishes a monthly employee newsletter filled with content that the CEO wants to communicate, written in language that appeals to MBAs. There's nothing wrong with the newsletter, really, as long as it's only distributed to the 15 people in the executive suite for whom it's written.

But the company prints 50,000 copies of the publication and sends it to all employees, who wonder what the content has to do with them.


The newsletter is what I'd call "vanity press," designed to stroke the ego of senior management, not meet the needs of its intended audience.

Even sophisticated companies sometimes fall into this "all about me" trap. For example, a billboard in an airport reads, "We're Acme, a global innovative company that helps the needs of businesses and communities right here in the United States." I can hear the audience asking, "What does this mean to me?" as they walk right by.

What to do instead: Know your audience, and make your communication all about them.

2. Try to cover too much

Ever listen to one of those interview shows on the radio where the host interviews guests and takes calls from listeners?

Next time you do, notice how people who are experienced at being interviewed—politicians, celebrities, book authors, activists—tend to be very good at getting their point across, whether that point is "vote for me" or "buy my book."

By contrast, it's likely that at least some of the callers are ramblers. They start on one topic, meander over to another, and finish somewhere else entirely. One sentence ellipses into another in a kind of free-flowing fugue. And, in the end, you wonder what they meant.

As marketing expert Harry Beckwith says, positioning "must be singular: One simple message. Your positioning must set you apart from your competitors. You must sacrifice. You cannot be all things to all people: You must focus on one thing."

What to do instead: Decide on one concept for your communication, and focus on getting that message across.

3. Use complicated, abstract concepts

Too much education can be a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to communicating clearly. We feel that we have to use all those words we memorized in school. We try to seem more impressive by constructing complex sentences. We think the more obtuse we sound, the more people will respect us.

The result is a paragraph like this, which has been adapted from a real opinion piece in a real publication:

It's intriguing that some businesses continue to support costly scattershot communication channels instead of opting for smarter, customer-driven messaging. By adopting strategic practices, encouraging ownership, and introducing self-governance, communication practitioners can improve penetration through empowerment.

The person who wrote the opinion piece was trying to make a persuasive argument. But instead of using tangible examples to make his or her case, the writer loaded up the article with lots of abstract, ethereal concepts. As a result, it's hard to connect, easy to tune out.

What to do instead: Make your communication tangible and specific.

4. Lose the human element

Why is so much communication created as if there were no human beings involved? I don't know the answer, either, which is why I can't explain the following excerpt of an email sent by a Fortune 500 corporation to employees and customers.

Introducing Our New Strategic Direction

Our new strategy will center on providing distinctive, consumer-oriented products and services to members in targeted markets. This more customer-segmented strategy is not intended to be a radical departure from the past, but will have important implications about how we will manage our business.

By focusing more sharply on the customer segments that align with our strengths and offer the best profit potential, we will be better able to provide consumers with a wider range of product choices, including more open access products.

What a great opportunity this would have been to tell a story about the company's efforts to turn itself around. Instead, we get this corporate drivel, which is neither engaging nor inspiring.

What to do instead: Tell stories that are real and human.

5. Create a dense thicket of information

Those of us communicating in the 21st Century are pretty darn lucky. We've got tons of tools right at our fingertips: word-processing, presentation and graphics software, the ability to post information on Web sites, and lots of other ways to make our content well organized and visually appealing.

That's why there's no excuse for all-text emails that require scrolling down several screens to read. Or whitepaper reports unrelieved by illustrations, charts or even tables. Or Web pages that lack subheads, boxes, and sidebars.

Today's audience sees text and runs in the other direction as fast as possible. And the more text-heavy a communication is, the faster they run. All those words just seem like too much work.

What to do instead: Make communication easy to navigate and use visuals to convey your concepts.

6. Go on too long

It's human nature to share everything you know, especially if you're excited about that new product your team developed or the project you're working on. Trouble is, when people fall in love with their own stuff—finance professionals with results, computer experts with technology, senior executives with strategy—they feel the need to over-share. And it's easier to include the entire kitchen sink rather than decide on the one point you want to make (see No. 2).

What to do instead: Say it as briefly and simply as possible.

7. Give a lecture

Flash back to our teenage years, when we thought we knew everything and all adults were idiots. Those adults were always trying to tell us what to do, wagging their fingers at us and exhorting us to "Pay attention! Be more responsible! Do this! Don't do that!" We hated it. But we got back at them in the most effective, subversive way possible: Although we sometimes appeared to be listening, we didn't hear a word they said.

Today, we're adults and functioning members of society, but guess what: We still hate to be lectured to. That's why when communication seems too authoritative and rule-based, we tune out as effectively as we did when we were 14.

What to do instead: Provide helpful hints and a recipe, not a lecture.


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Alison Davis is coauthor (with New York Times columnist Paul B. Brown) of the new book Your Attention, Please: How to Appeal to Today's Distracted, Disengaged and Busy Audiences (Adams Business, 2006) and is CEO of employee communications firm Davis & Company. For more information about the book, go to Amazon or www.yourattentionpleasebook.com.

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