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 tiniest possible action

Something is not right!
Something is quite wrong!
Something is not right!
That’s why I sing this song.

Apologies to Madeline fans everywhere, who now have that song firmly implanted in their heads.

If something is wrong in your biz at this moment – and something undoubtedly is – then it’s easy to get wrapped up in the enormity of the problem and all its implications and oh fuck nothing is ever gonna fix this and I’m gonna go re-watch season one of Sons of Anarchy and eat a half tub of ice cream.

This is not useful!

What is, both in terms of possibly solving the problem and not demolishing the Neapolitan, is this:

Think of the tiniest possible action you could take that might improve this situation. And take it.

If you’re woe-ifying about Not Enough Cash, what’s the tiniest possible action you could take?

  • Mentioning one of your services on Twitter.
  • Emailing one of your regular clients to see how they’re doing.
  • Following up with an outstanding debtor.
  • Checking the sofa cushions for loose change.
  • Make one safe ask.

If you’re woe-ifying about Not Enough Joy, what’s the tiniest possible action you could take?

  • Watch a funny video.
  • Ask your Facebook followers to tell you the most valuable thing you have given them.
  • Re-read your testimonial emails.
  • Help someone.
  • Write a list of “I get to”s.

This way, you get your brain away from thinking about problems, and toward thinking about action. And if not one other thing happens, you at least made one tiny step toward improving the situation.

A challenge!

Next time the panicweasels get into your brain, try the Tiniest Possible Action. Report in the comments.

photo by: V&A Steamworks

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!)

Announcing: Catherine’s Second Theorem Of Work Versus Rest

I wish to announce that I have completed Catherine’s Second Theorem Of Work Versus Rest.

Catherine’s First Theorem Of Work Versus Rest was stated thus:

There are three categories of work versus rest:

  • Working hard
  • Taking it easy
  • Taking a day off

The practice:

Since you have so much to do, taking it easy is preferable to taking a day off. Working hard is best.

But those classifications are inaccurate.

After extensive further testing, I have created a much more accurate model with its own corollaries. I am confident that this model is both more reflective of reality and more useful to the practical scientist.

Catherine’s Second Theorem Of Work Versus Rest

There are two categories of work, two of rest and one amalgam. They are:

Creative labour

High-end creative output, including writing, design, research, innovation, strategy, performance, development.

This work requires incubation, percolation and time.

(Credit to my colleague Lewis Hyde for his exploration of the difference between “creative labour” and “work”.)


All of the other tasks of one’s business, from pressing seams to answering emails to marketing to customer maintenance.


A mixture of work and rest. This phenomenon is actually two similar events:

Sorta-Working, where the subject attempts to get work done but with constant distraction and attention drift to pleasure activities.

Sorta-Resting, where the subject attempts to relax but with constant distraction and attention drift back to work tasks.


Naps, sleep, play, dance, light exercise, social exchanges, and pleasurable activities of all kinds.


Time spent without creating and without consuming, including meditation, walks (without headphones), cloud/fish/train-watching, swimming in the ocean, playing with the dog, and snuggling.

The implications of this new model

1. Unsuitability of the Sorta-Kinda activities for practical use.

The Sorta-Kinda category is not, as previously theorised, a clever way to get work done while conserving energy. It has become clear that it is actually ineffectual at both tasks – getting very little work done, while also delivering very little rest.

With prolonged use, subjects have reported the following symptoms:

  • restlessness
  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • lack of creativity
  • lack of focus
  • reduced pleasure in their work
  • continual fatigue
  • difficulty in problem-solving
  • reduced ability to persevere
  • missing deadlines
  • declining work standards
  • irritation

I have experienced many of these symptoms myself. Thus, I am now experimenting with removing this category entirely. I will either work (creative labour and work included here) or I will rest (unplugging and rest included here). Sorta-Working and Sorta-Resting will be discontinued.

I will document my results in a paper to be published later.

2. How to resolve problems in work and creative labour.

Work and creative labour (henceforth referred to collectively as “work activities”) both require energy – prodigious amounts, especially in the case of creative labour. Work activities burn this energy inefficiently, resulting in an overall decrease in the energy put into the system.

This shortfall in energy must be obtained from other sources, most notably rest and unplugging (henceforth referred to collectively as “rest activities”).

Thus, if one is experiencing a decline in output of work activities that is due to insufficient energy levels, attempting to do more work activities will only increase the problem. Under such circumstances, rest activities are the only logical solution.

Put succinctly: if you can’t work, you must rest.

3. Additional notes regarding creative labour.

It has been documented by other studies that a regular output of creative labour requires a regular input of unplugging.

This is logical, as unplugging is a time – for some subjects, the only time while awake – where the subject is not absorbing more data, and the mind is allowed to be fallow, contemplative, and make its own connections. These connections are vital to the formation of truly creative thought, and are considerably less likely to occur in a subject whose brain is constantly stimulated.

Thus, a regular practice of unplugging is as vital as regular rest for the maintenance of creative labour. I mention this to highlight a part of the model: rest and unplugging are separate activities. Some hyper-efficient subjects have attempted to combine them, but thus far all attempts have reduced the output of one – or both – of the desired activities.

I look forward to your peer review of this model. I am confident you will find it accurate and applicable.

Doer of Science