How to Get (and Keep) People's Attention

Clever readers might have noticed that my blog’s tagline has changed. Rather than “A Brain Scientist’s Take on Creative Writing,” it’s now “A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing.” No, I haven't decided to stop being creative. It’s just that my interests are broadening to nonfiction.

My biggest hurdle when writing nonfiction is -– who cares? How do you convince people to stick around for 200 pages of facts? Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, dedicates a chapter to the art of gaining and keeping someone's attention.

The easiest way to get attention is surprise. Tell people something unexpected, and they’ll pay attention. Many urban legends (You only use 10 percent or your brain, or the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space), have the element of surprise. (Yes, they are both myths, so stop fantasizing about what you'll be able to do once you tap that extra 90%.)

But it’s easy to get attention. How do you keep it? The key to curiosity, according to the Heaths, is the knowledge gap. People get interested when they feel a gap in their knowledge.

Note that the gap is not the whole story. It’s not enough that your audience doesn’t know what you’re going to tell them. They have to be aware of the gap. Here are a couple methods for making them aware.

1. Pull the rug out from under them.
Tell them something so surprising that it overturns their schema of how things work. The 10% brain myth is a good example. (Well, in this case, it's surprising and counterintuitive because it’s false).

2.Create a mystery.
 The Heaths tell the story of a professor named Robert Cialdini, who studied popular science books and analyzed the way they engaged their audience. He found books that presented the scientific question as a mystery to be very effective. One particularly gripping article chronicled the race by three groups of scientists to determine the composition of Saturn's rings. (One group thought gas, another dust, and the third ice.)

Cialdini says,” Do you know what the answer was at the end of twenty pages? Dust. Dust. Actually, ice-covered dust, which accounts for some of the confusion. Now, I don't care about dust, and the makeup of the rings of Saturn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But that writer had me turning pages like a speed-reader.”

Cialdini started applying what he learned to his teaching – presenting a mystery at the beginning of each class and revealing the answer at the end. This approach was so successful that when he ran overtime, students refused to leave until he revealed the answer.

3.Give your audience enough information to create a gap. “Gaps start with knowledge,” say the Heaths. Give enough context to make the audience care, and then present the question.

They give an example from NCAA football coverage. In the 60’s, college football games were televised without frills. Announcers just set up a camera and described what was happening in the game. Roone Arledge, however, came up with the idea of providing context. Before the game, he introduced shots of the city, the campus, the traditions, and rivalries. He gave enough information so that the viewers knew enough to care about the outcome. His approach was wildly successful.

The more I think about it it, the clearer it becomes that fiction and nonfiction hook their readers in fundamentally the same way. It’s all about providing a bit of context to make the reader care and introducing a mystery to keep her hooked.

What keeps you interested?

P.S. I highly recommend Made to Stick. It's a quick, interesting read, and very practical advice for anyone trying to get a message across.

Five hundred! Call for Introductions and Feedback

According to Feedburner, this blog now has over 500 subscribers!  A big thank you to everyone for your support.  It's been a blast nerding it out with everyone about all things brains and writing.

This seems like a good time to step back and reflect on where to go from here.  To that end, I'd like to get to know y'all a bit better and solicit your feedback.

If you're reading this, please introduce yourself (or reintroduce yourself) in the comments.  What stage of the writing journey are you at?  (And if you're not a writer, why in the world are you subscribed to this blog?)  What kinds of posts have you enjoyed the most/least, and what would you like to see in the future?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Understanding Brain States for Optimum Creativity

As writers, we constantly have to come up with with new creative ideas.  How do we keep them coming?  I recently attended a talk by Shelley Carson, Harvard psychologist and author of Your Creative Brain.  To learn her tips for functioning at your creative best, see my guest post at Problogger.

Book Trailer and Video Blogging Tips from e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

I recently attended a talk by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo at the Central and Southern Ohio SCBWI. Charlton-Trujillo burst into the children's writing scene when her debut novel, Prizefighter en Mi Casa, won the Delacorte Dell Yearling Award in 2004.  Her second book, Feels Like Home, was published in 2007.

Although she's a successful novelist, Charlton Trujillo's background is in film. Her current project is a paranormal TV series called Fallen.  At her talk, in addition to telling us about her publishing journey,  she passed along some tips for  videoblogging and making book trailers.  Here they are.

1.  Network and make friends with photographers, musicians, and videographers. They will be very helpful when you decide to make book trailers. New musicians might be willing to let you use their music, for the exposure.

2.  If you're on a budget, consider hiring a college film student. They will work for a lower rate if they can use the trailer in their demo reel.

3.  Or, get your readers involved and hold a competition for them to make their own trailer.

4.  If you have a picture book, your job is half done. They have pictures!

5.  For easy video blogging, try a Flip camera or Kodak's Zi8. If you want absolute, full proof ease, go with the Flip. For slightly more control but with the same amount of ease in transfer to your computer, the Kodak Zi8 is your best bet in the pocket cam realm. Some models cost less than $200 dollars.