Assume People Don’t Read or Listen

As a writer, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was in my best interest to assume that most people don’t read very much or listen very well. Short attention spans, busy lives and almost constant distractions create enormous challenges for communicators. It’s an undeniable fact that audiences bore easily.

So how can we increase our chances that people will pay attention? Our best bet is to paint mental pictures and tell stories (in speeches and in text) to capture their imaginations and keep them from zoning out.

Here are three examples:

In a Powerpoint presentation on the importance of building brands, a marketing executive clicked on a single image – a close-up of a burly biker’s forearm, which featured a tattoo of the Harley Davidson logo. No words (or word slides) could ever convey the power of brands better than this single, memorable photograph. This one image created a wonderful platform for the speaker to make his few key points clearly and succinctly. I never forgot it.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Reagan used almost his entire speech to tell the story of a single World War II private, who didn’t live long enough to join the ceremony, but who was represented by his daughter.

“Quoting the daughter, Reagan said, “He made me feel the fear of being on that boat waiting to land. I can smell the ocean and feel the seasickness. I can see the looks on his fellow soldiers’ faces–the fear, the anguish, the uncertainty of what lay ahead. And when they landed, I can feel the strength and courage of the men who took those first steps through the tide to what must have surely looked like instant death.” And later, the president quotes her as saying, “All I know is that it brings tears to my eyes to think about my father as a 20-year-old boy having to face that beach.”

President Obama recently used one phrase to paint a memorable mental picture when he spoke in March about the consequences of our economic crisis. Reflecting the economic challenges of ordinary Americans, he referred to “the college acceptance letter your child had to put back in the envelope.” Who doesn’t get that little slice of suffering?

One story and one mental picture said it all. That’s really how people relate, understand, and remember.

Don Heymann

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