• Emotion has a greater role in memory and attention than we realize
  • Social connections remain incredibly important to attention, and access unique parts of the brain
  • Attention is meant to be fluid, and to shift; smart marketing and sales designs for this

I once went shark diving by accident. The “accident” was that the sharks – lots of sharks – showed up on a dive that was neither planned nor equipped (read: surrounding me with a giant steel cage) to be a shark dive. I managed to get back in the boat with all my limbs intact. However, the mental picture of looking up at the belly of a very large shark swimming between where I was underwater and the boat deck I was trying to get onto is seared into my brain. I recall it all: their size, the surprise of their being there, the way they moved. I was frightened, but I was also amazed, excited and interested. And because of the intensity of those emotions, the sharks had my attention in a way that few things have since.

Attention, and its relationship to emotion, is a tricky thing, but it’s also far less of a mystery these days. Consider this: 

  • Ninety percent of everything scientis­­­ts know about the human brain has been discovered in the last 10 years.
  • Eighty­ percent of what scientists thought was true about the human brain before 1995 has been found to be false or misleading.

And yet much of what has been discovered about the human brain confirms how much we have not changed as a species over the past several thousand years.­­­ Our brains are still wired for hunting and surviving, and for forging connections with other people in a social setting. The recent explosion of information in neuroscience has shown us just how hard-coded – and how beautifully intricate and amazing – this wiring is. ­­ 

In other words, what we’ve learned about ourselves is that our need for social connection and conversation, the dominance of our emotions and their relationship to memory, and our drive for movement and motion and interaction – these things aren’t easy to suppress or alter, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. 

We see this reality play out in trends over multiple industries and professions: marketing, sales, product development.  In the past month, how many times have you seen a headline (you don’t have to confess to clicking through) on:

  • The Power of…
  • Storytelling
  • “The Narrative”
  • Speaking to personas
  • Being agile

All of these things are recommending ways to capture or maximize your audience’s attention – so, what is behind this advice? Well, those last 10 years of neuroscience research tell us a few useful things:

  1. Emotion plays a bigger role in memory and in attention than almost anything else. Emotion is the cornerstone of attention and memory, even in the brains of people who see themselves as hyperlogical. Emotions not only help activate and recall what it is in our brains already, but also help physically encode the new stuff. Storytelling is such an often recommended tool in part because it automatically includes emotion – which is why it is so valuable in selling products or ideas.
  2. Social engagement connects parts of the brain that don’t engage in any other way. This is why community around your brand and customer engagement is vital. We have entire parts of our brains set up just to connect. Neglecting this element of who we are is incredibly short-sighted and leaves aside a major way to leverage attention. When SiriusDecisions asked high-performing reps about the most impactful learning experiences they had, all of the top five involved some form of social connection.
  3. Attention is fluid because paying attention to one thing leaves us vulnerable to other things. Attention is biologically meant to shift. It should shift. The key – for someone trying to keep and hold an audience’s attention – is to be completely prepared for this shift. Plan for it. Be there with the next item in your list, the next piece of content, the next natural place to click. When you fight the fluidity of attention, you always lose. When you ebb and flow with it, you win. 

At the end of the day, more than clicks, more than open rates, more than pipe velocity, more than usage rates, what we want is the attention of our audience, our buyers, our clients and our customers. Those metrics are just byproducts of the real goal. When we keep in mind what drives the behavior behind the numbers, and create experiences that speak to that hard-wired nature, that’s what sticks around for a long, long time. Just try not to need a shark-proof cage in the process.