How to keep your reader’s attention

Attention is the most preciousest currency of the online world. Once you’ve gotten your reader’s attention, how do you keep it?

Here are my favourite three methods.

Tell stories

I subscribe to the newsletter of (and highly recommend) an Australian consultancy group called Anecdote. They teach organisations to find and tell their most meaningful stories. (I had morning tea with one of their principles once, and I felt Very Grown Up doing it.)

Their newsletter has a book recommendation every issue, and the books are always interesting. This is how I ended up reading a book called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, despite not having a team at the time, functional or otherwise.

It wasn’t the grabbiest or most riveting tale you’ve ever read, being as it was about the C-level team of a culturally poisonous tech company, and their gradual transformation under the guidance of a new leader. But it was still a story.

So a dry book about a transformational model that had no application to my work – and was, frankly, not that well written – but I still read it all the way through. It doesn’t need to be an amazing fairy tale to be effective. (This small story wasn’t, but you still read it to the end.)

Make it about the reader

This is simple:

We have a limitless capacity to pay attention to anything that is about ourselves.

As long as you keep talking about me, I’m gonna keep listening.

Be a bit weird

One of the simplest ways to lose your reader’s attention is to be completely predictable.

One of the simplest ways to keep your reader’s attention is to be just a wee bit unpredictable.

Our brains are set up to automatically filter out familiar inputs, which is why it only takes three nights in a new house before you start ignoring all the what-the-giddy-hell-was-that? noises that kept you awake the first two nights.

Thus, the more you sound like someone I’ve heard before, the more likely I am to automatically, and pre-consciously, stop paying attention. Note that word “pre-consciously”: I will not even know I am doing it.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much deviation from the ordinary for you to no longer fit the established patterns, and thus your brain says, “Hey, this is new. Pay attention.”

The easiest, most sustainable, and zero bullshit method to be just a bit weird is to stop self-censoring and be yourself. I am a person who swears when emotional and enjoys making up words. My writing became 23856% more interesting the instant I stopped fighting this.


This is just my top three.

I have another half-dozen in the top drawer of my toolbox.

What are your favourite methods to keep your reader’s attention? Share ’em in the comments!

The Blue Fairy learns how to make the ask

The Blue Fairy got laid off in the latest round of budget cuts.

Her friend and fellow fairy godmother, The Institutional Green Fairy, said, “Why don’t you start an online business? You love making that exercise clothing, and there’s totally a market for it.”

The Blue Fairy thought about it and decided to give it a try. She created a product line, called it Glitterrific, and built an online store and website and Pinterest and Twitter and alla dat.

Then she sat back and waited for the money to roll in.

Instead, she got a trickle of orders. Her buyers were wildly enthusiastic, but there weren’t enough of them. “Nuts!” squeaked The Blue Fairy.

She went to The Pinstripe Grey Fairy for advice. The Pinstripe Grey Fairy had retired from fairy godmothering after numerous customer complaints about “boring” wishes – like excellent liver function and perfect parallel parking skills – and was now a business advisor.

The Pinstripe Grey Fairy looked over the records and approved of The Blue Fairy’s costings and price per unit.

The Pinstripe Grey Fairy examined the business model and found it to be competitive with the industry.

The Pinstripe Grey Fairy looked at the marketing and made a small “Ah-ha!” noise.

The Blue Fairy squeaked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

The Pinstripe Grey Fairy replied, “It’s a classic problem when fairy godmothers go into business. You don’t know how to make the ask.”

“Make the what?”

The Pinstripe Grey Fairy said, slowly and calmly and rationally, “You pushed the wand for, what, six hundred years? Except for that side gig in the 40s. Thousands upon thousands of times of going to the innocent-and-the-deserving-and-the-children-of-destiny, as per section 43, and granting their heart’s desire.”

“I sure did!” squeaked The Blue Fairy.

“And those innocent-and-the-deserving-and-the-children-of-destiny customers, they always asked for something. “Will you give me hair white as snow, skin black as coal, marry the prince, slay the dragon, open the franchise.” Always they ask for something.”

“No-one ever asked me about franchises…”

“Really? But my point stands. Fairy godmothers are excellent at answering questions. They get no practice in asking them.”

“Oh!” squeaked The Blue Fairy.

“And that’s a problem, because I’m in business now!”

“Yes. For example, you have a sales page for your glitter sweatbands. You list all the qualities of the sweatband, you tell them how much it is, and then you have a sparkly Buy Now button. But you never actually ask them to buy.”

“I see!” squeaked The Blue Fairy. “It’s like those innocent-and-the-deserving-and-the-children-of-destiny customers who don’t actually make a wish! They say, “My stepmother is cruel and I think she’s planning to have me imprisoned.” but they don’t actually ask us, “Could you turn my stepmother into a melon?” They were so frustrating!”

“Precisely. Well put. The same applies to your Weekly Sparkletasticness newsletter. You tell people it is, ah, “Full of glittery wonderfulness!” but you don’t actually invite them to sign up. I’m guessing you also don’t ever ask people to look at your website, or ask them if they would like to buy your products.”

“I don’t believe I do!” squeaked The Blue Fairy. “How do I begin?”

How To Make The Ask

On sales pages

A sales page is, in essence, one big question: Do you want to buy this thing I am offering? It is amazing how many people fail to ask any kind of question on their sales pages.

Easy fix! Before the Buy Now button, ask a question.

The simplest is “Are you ready for [outcome]?” The Blue Fairy’s question might be “Are you ready for the most glitterrific Pilates session of your life?”

In your marketing

Whenever there is an action you want your readers to take, ask them to take it.

Want comments? Ask for them. Want people to sign up to your newsletter? Ask them to do it. Want people to read your new, asking-a-question sales page? Yeah, you know.

In networking

Instead of refining your elevator pitch, work on your Golden Question. That’s the question you ask when you’ve met someone who you think could be a great fit for your offering, and you’d like to open a conversation on that topic.

Example: “Do you think that exercise clothes should have glitter?”

Then you listen to them talk. You have a conversation about the thing you do. And if the conversation goes the right way, you get new clients.

If it’s this simple, why don’t we do it?

Because 50% of the possible answers to the question are, “No.”

We are setting ourselves up to the possibility of failure and rejection, and if your pulse does not elevate slightly at that prospect then you are a cyborg.

What your rejection-adverse brain often fails to remember is that not all “No”s are the same. For example, when you invite someone over for dinner and feed them ten delightful courses, if their response to offered cake is, “No, I couldn’t possibly fit any more food in.” then you won’t run crying from the house feeling rejected.

There are “No”s which are a rejection of you as a person, and they never fail to sting. You can get better at dealing with it, but that does seem to be one of those things we’re hard-wired to find painful.

But most of the “No”s you receive as a business person are not about you. They’re about the person saying them: what they want, how much money they have, whether they prefer a different colour/style/size/aesthetic/method, how busy they are right now. (Or how much roast beef they ate earlier.)

The better you get at that internal distance (“They aren’t saying “No” about me, they’re saying “No” to the offer.”) the more your business will flourish. Because 90% of your competitors are still too scared to ask.

So how do you get learn to make the ask?

The only method I know of that will create that internal distance is practice. Lots and lots of practice.

I think there are stages of the ask. The first stage is the implied question, “Would you be willing to pay $x for this?” which a lot of starting biz owners struggle mightily with. (Again, mostly because they’re conflating “What this doodad is worth to you” with “What I am worth”.)

Then there is learning to make the ask in your own safe places, like your website.

Then there’s learning to make the ask in external, but still pretty safe places, like networking events and Twitter circles of friends.

Then there is learning to make the ask without any of those safety nets.

I have no idea what the ask after that one is, ’cos I still find that last one really difficult. I’m working on it.

A challenge!

I challenged a client to try this, and then realised that I needed to refresh my skills in it, too. (It appears that a long dose of depression reduces your confidence in ways that you might not even notice for some time. WHO KNEW.)

Anyway, so we are making one ask, every day. It is extremely uncomfortable, and we’re glad to be doing it.

Want to join us? Make one ask, every day. It can be small or big, to a friend or a client. Just step a smidgen outside your comfort zone and build your marketing muscles.

Then, tweet us with the hashtag #maketheask so we know, and can applaud you.

Do you have trouble making the ask? Have any tips to share? Tell us in the comments!

(Nope, that ask didn’t count. That one is easy-peasy for me. Watch the hashtag to find out what my ask is today!)

Why aren’t you specialising in special?

Dear online biz owner,

Your market is anyone with an Internet connection, the capacity to obtain currency, and a fluency in your language. If your language is English, you have at least five hundred million potential buyers.

It’s okay to be very specific about who you’re attracting.

More than that, it is vital that you are very specific about who you’re attracting.

’Cos those five hundred million people have a lot of options. There don’t have to settle for pretty-good or sorta-kinda. They can hold out until they find an offering that is specifically and enchantingly designed just for them.

Why would I choose a website for “car owners” over one that is for “owners of the Ford Falcon GT”?

(I just Googled. There is one. Of course.)

When we are buyers, we want to feel special.

To feel understood. To be welcomed and catered for and handled by experts.

And generic, I-can-work-with-anybody websites have zero chance of creating that experience.

Welcoming, specialness and expertise all require specificity.

So, since you have to be specific to shine online, why not specialise in the people who will most appreciate your work?

There are people who have the sense of humour, the values, the smarts, the perspective and the character to squeeze every single drop of juice from your work.

Why the everliving fuck wouldn’t you want to sell to them and only them?

Remember, you’re working from a pool of five hundred million potentials. There are enough ideal clients in the world to fill your business twenty thousand times over.

Why aren’t you specialising in special yet?

(If the answer is: “Because I have no idea who would squeeze the most juice out of my work!” then you should check out Goddamn Radiant. That’s a very fixable problem.)

Are there any other reasons you haven’t gotten specific about your best audience yet? Tell us in the comments!

photo by: pjan vandaele

Poetry and shovels

Sometimes when you come to write, you get poetry: lyrical, profound, gutsy, whimsical, full-throttle, evocative.

And sometimes you get shovels: it’s a shovel. It digs stuff.

Some people think of themselves as poets, so they throw out everything which isn’t poetry.

Some people think of themselves as workers, so they throw out everything which isn’t usefully shovel-like.

Some people want to keep both.

I have some questions.

1. The poet and the worker are easy, branding-wise. How does the shovels-and-poetry person brand themselves?

2. Does the shovels-and-poetry person suffer for that lack of simplicity? Or does the prolificness outweigh any potential downsides?

3. Is it wise for the poet to throw away the mundane?

4. Is it wise for the worker to throw away the numinous?

Share your thoughts in the comments.