Tricks for Getting and Holding Attention

with guest Michael Bernoff #MakingBank S4E34

Is there anything more frustrating than trying to speak to people who just won’t listen? Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, an employer, or just a person talking to a friend, there aren’t many things that get on your nerves quite like someone who isn’t listening to what you have to say. 

But whose fault is it when attention isn’t being paid? Most of us can probably also relate to being in a class that we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay attention to. Try as we might, our daydreams, the kid sitting next to us drawing, or people walking by the window were just much better at catching our attention. Was that really our fault? 

It’s easy to get annoyed when someone isn’t paying attention to us, but there’s much more benefit in directing that energy inwards and asking ourselves what we could be doing differently in order to get the attention we want. Stop thinking about attention as something you’re owed, and start thinking about it as something you win. If you’re delivering interesting material, people will reward you with their attention 100% of the time. It’s your job to figure out how to do that. 

While making the content of what you’re presenting interesting is the most important thing you need to focus on, developing the following habits will help you engage, draw interest, and focus attention in key moments. 

1. Ask the Right Questions

Perhaps the most important rule of thumb when trying to get someone’s attention is to ask them questions. No one wants to listen to someone who is just rattling on, whatever the topic is. By asking the right questions, you get your audience involved and generate a natural level of interest in the topic at hand. 

If you’re talking about healthy eating, ask about your participants’ experiences with nutritious food or dieting. What have they tried? What have the challenges been? What benefits did they notice? Are they open to trying something new? (segue into something you have to offer or speak about). 

This not only grabs attention and focuses it; it also allows you to listen to their needs and get valuable information about how to direct the conversation towards their natural interests. 

2. Smile… but Not Too Much

Never underestimate the power of a nice smile. And never overestimate how long you need to maintain that smile either. 

When first meeting someone, shaking their hand and flashing a grin relaxes people. Don’t overthink it – just let it happen naturally. Trying too hard to smile will make you look like a wax figure, and holding it for the duration of a conversation is lunacy. No one trusts a person who does that. 

3. Eye Contact, Listen 

Making eye contact is the golden rule of any conversation, and it’s harder to do than most people realize. You may even believe that you are making eye contact when, in reality, you are just looking at the other person’s face. 

Challenge yourself to make direct eye contact and hold it at least a few times during your conversations, particularly when you are listening. It can take some time to master this and have it feel natural, but once you do it creates an instant connection, allowing both parties to focus and retain more, as well as feel heard. 

Similarly to the smile, you don’t want to overdo it with eye contact. Maintaining too much can actually draw attention away from the conversation and into the eye contact, or it can even feel intrusive and have the opposite effect, creeping people out. 

To make it easy, every 15-30 seconds, try to make eye contact and let it linger for 4-5 seconds. If it feels right, feel free to increase that number, but a good rule of thumb is to take a break from the connection and let your eyes wander about 50% of the time. 

4. Use Emphasis Words to Indicate Something Important

If you are trying to make a short point of emphasis, you can actually hack the mind to generate focused attention for 1 or 2 breaths by simply using the words “look” and “listen,” especially in conjunction. 

Actively calling for attention helps signal to people that what you are about to say is more important than the rest of the conversation and so it deserves a special amount of focus. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a request, and requests can get worn out if overused. 

If you use these words too often, they will lose their effect, or if you use them with the expectation that you now have someone’s full attention indefinitely, you will exhaust your listener. Find the right moment to deploy this tactic, and try to condense your main point into one or two sentences. If you do this well, people will learn over time that when you indicate you have something insightful or important to say, you can actually back that up, and they will be more likely to listen to you again cheerfully in the future. 

5. Body Language 

It probably comes as no surprise that communication runs much, much deeper than the words we speak. The way we present ourselves says as much, if not more about us than what we actually say, and it’s integral in establishing a rapport with people and gaining trust. 

That being said, this stuff is so hardwired into our DNA that trying to actively create a desired effect using your body language can put people off or be detected outright. 

So what are you to do? The key here is to focus on your mind, then let your body follow. Focus on taking slow, deliberate breaths in order to stay relaxed. Check in with your intentions. Are you trying to make a sale, or to make a connection and help someone? 

If your intentions are in the right place and you feel relaxed, that will be portrayed through your body language without requiring any effort from you at all. It really comes down to a simple rule: if you are genuine, you will come across as genuine, and if you’re not, your body will betray you. 

By remaining authentic, confident, and relaxed, we automatically garner the attention we desire. The only thing left to do then is find the topics you love and learn how to share them with others. If you do both of those things, you’ll never need to suffer through watching your words go in and out of your intended recipient’s ears again. 

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