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Pay attention!

This might look like a standard cup game, but it’s actually a very interesting test. I won’t spoil it for you – give it a try.

Attention ( is a weird and wonderful thing. Unfortunately, humans don’t do it as well as we think we do. A famous experiment ( demonstrates the concept of “change blindness”. In this experiment, a person engages someone in discussion (eg, to ask for directions) and is replaced by a different person when people carrying a large object pass between them. In many cases, the person does not notice the switch, even when there are significant differences between the “before” and “after” person.

This is actually a very broad and interesting field, and touches on a wide variety of areas of study, ranging from what input is received, to how we process it, all the way to how we understand the processes by which we perceive.

How do we “pay attention” to something, and what do we notice? How does paying attention to one thing make us more (or less) likely to notice something else? To what degree do we control what we notice, and to what degree can we learn to “pay more attention” to something?

Avoiding myriad rabbit-holes around this topic, I’ll focus on how to get someone’s attention when communicating with them. What I have found to be most important is to put something in terms that a person is most receptive to.

Now, I am not referring to the idea of learning “styles” or “modalities” (, according to which you would determine whether a person is a “visual” learner and put things into terms associated with vision. While I suspect there is some truth in the idea of some people being more comfortable with one learning “modality” over another, the claims which have been made in this area appear to have been weakly supported and wildly overstated, if not altogether pseudo-scientific.

What I mean is that people tend to respond to language or ideas with which they are most comfortable. I often joke (?) that I am reasonably fluent in “Finance”, “Marketing”, and “HR”, along with several dialects of “Techie”. What I mean is that I have worked with people focused in those functions, and have learned a bit about some of the mindsets associated with them.

To take an example from my own experience, I was working with a team responsible for managing the data held by a CRM (Client Relationship Management) system, and we identified an issue with the data and how it was being managed by the team. Our goal was to work with leadership and the client teams to see how we could ensure that the data was properly maintained. (All numbers are invented, mostly because I have forgotten them...)

Attempt 1:

“We’ve identified an issue with the data, and need to get it fixed. Almost 20% of the records in the system have an issue.”

Response 1:

Tumbleweeds and wind... Hm. That obviously didn’t work. Let’s try again.

Attempt 2:

“We’ve identified an issue with the data, and need to get it fixed. Almost 2000 records in the system have an issue.”

Response 2:

Crickets. Still not good. Let’s give that another shot, shall we?

Attempt 3:

“We’ve identified an issue with the data, and need to get it fixed. We have an issue with records associated with more than twenty million dollars in revenue.”

Response 3:

Ok, maybe not quite that dramatic, but we got their attention. Now that we have it, people will at least acknowledge the issue and entertain a discussion regarding how we can fix it.

The point is that many people assume that everyone will share their “language” and way of thinking about things. Technology people tend to think in (and describe things in) terms of technology, while marketing people more often think in terms of building relationships, and finance people tend to think in terms of money.

Needless to say, it’s more complicated than that. For example, within the technology group, developers generally view things differently from database administrators, who view things differently from networking people. The goal should be to understand your intended audience and how they are likely to “frame” an issue.

Fortunately, there are a few tricks one can learn. For most larger organizations, most leaders will understand (to at least some degree) things in terms of money and/or risk, so that’s often a good starting point. Another way is to learn as much as you can about your target audience, then try to anticipate their questions and ensure that you can answer them. (I often look at things in terms of a dialogue, where each point will raise a follow-up that needs to be answered or addressed.)

The important thing is to understand who you’re talking to, and how you can best engage with them, but it’s also important to recognize that you might generate more attention than you really want if you’re not careful...



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