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.


  1. Very interesting post! I love the part about setting things up as a mystery (the classroom technique is fascinating!) I'll have to think about how to infuse a little more mystery into my WIP!

  2. You can also catch people's attention by saying something outrageously stupid. Or so I've heard, anyway. Not that I've tried this. At all. Ever. *cough*

    Excellent post, though, good lady. I'd completely agree that the "hook" technique works for both fiction and non-fiction. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston comes to mind immediately as an example of the latter. How high were the stakes in THAT one? Whoo!

  3. I will definitely be getting Made To Stick and applying some of these techniques to my teaching - I can't stand the look of hostile boredom on college students' faces while lecturing! I also loved how you tied the success with non-fiction to fiction. Mystery and context... makes me wonder if there is also a way to bring conflict into the non-fiction or teaching mix, too. hmmmn.

  4. Margo -- Definitely true for conflict. Another example in the book mentions two classes -- one where students debate a topic, and one where they didn't. The students in the debate were far more likely to stay in class during recess to watch a film on the subject.

  5. Non-fiction is a great idea. You are more likely to get published with NF. If you tell a story AND it's true, it is so fascinating. Bizarre facts, coincidences that we'd say, No way, to in fiction, becomes the best part of NF. Write on!

  6. Yes, these are all good ways to hold peoples' attention! I would add that the writing has to be creative and tell a story, even if it is non-fiction. It has to be a good NARRATIVE.
    Love this site, and your astute observations!

  7. I'm usually a lurker on your posts, and I send the links to a friend. I'm going to get Made to Stick. I think you're right and I can use this in my fiction writing.

  8. Great article! And good luck with the branching out into Nonfiction. I haven't entirely hung up my scientist hat for a novelist one yet either.

    So glad I stumbled upon your awesome blog!

  9. Thanks for this info! I'm always up for scientifically testing the value of my writing. :) I'll keep these principles in mind.

  10. Of course, this assumes that writing nonfiction isn't creative, and involves only delivering facts. I couldn't disagree more. Conveying factual information in a compelling way involves all the same processes of selecting and omitting things, shaping, organizing, crafting phrases, sentences, paragraphs--as any short story, novel or poem. The tips you give here are good examples of that creativity.

  11. I took Made to Stick out of the library, but I may yet purchase it.

    The six steps all seem applicable to writing stories, keep it simple, use emotion, be concrete and specific - all very good things to use in writing and storytelling.

    And the last step - Story. It all boils down to story.

  12. This is way interesting. Thanks for this post!

  13. That's awesome and I get. I write nonfiction, and my life has plenty of mystery so I think I've got this covered. Your article has made think about re-positioning some content. Thanks, Simon.

  14. Ooh, I love this. This is a great way to think about establishing mystery, tension and pace in a novel. Brilliant as usual! :)

  15. Fascinating post. Really loved reading it! I guess this is why mysteries and thrillers are so popular!

  16. Late to the party, but had to comment on this one. I'm a fiction writer who LOVES reading non fiction, (which drives my book club crazy). But Bill Bryson, Oliver Sacks, Michio Kaku must do exactly what you're talking about because I love their writing.

    Did you ever hear of the radio reporter, Paul Harvey? He did exactly that, for decades! You never knew who or what he was going to surprise you with at the end of "Page three" -- yes, he'd always say "Page Two" then "Page Three", I guess to build the suspense. But it was a short biography that had the listener unable to turn off the radio, for decades.

    Don Hewitt, the founder of 60 Minutes, died recently. Apparently the key to his success was that he didn't want to report the news, he wanted to ask questions and tell a story. Brilliant. I will get the book you've suggested.

  17. Cialdini sounds like an awesome teacher. I can imagine why his students stayed back to hear the answer. I would too!

    Also, Samuel Park has a really good point. Mysteries and thrillers are the two genres where the story literally revolves around a question. What better way to keep readers curious? And the only way to get the answer is to read (or just skip to the end - but that's never as satisfying at it sounds).

  18. The implications of this being right are quite ugly.

    - readers are childish. They don't read nonfiction because they are interested in the subject and what the author has to say about it; they read because the author manages to trick them into it. The final reward is just entertainment, who cares about the rings of Saturn?

    - readers are stupid – and they know it. They do not maintain they entertain a peer-to-peer conversation with the author. They need to be lured into reading, i.e. they are not following their own curiosities and paths. The author determines their intellectual agenda.

    - authors are not just promoting books sales, which is great, but actually trying to sell an idea, no blows barred.

    A read can never be entertaining enough in fiction. With nonfiction (at least to somebody who reads to find pit about stuff she considers relevant) objectivity needs to be a consideration too. Since, as in your example, the most seductive arguments are not always the soundest, concentrating on the entertainment value lands you with a lot of very dubious stuff about the Templar Knights. As a reader, I don't think that is a good thing. At all.

  19. Albert -- I respectfully disagree.

    1. While it's true that some ideas are more interesting than others, the same idea in the hands of a skilled vs. bad writer can either be fascinating or soul-crushingly boring. If a topic is interesting to me, I'll put up with a dry presentation, but I'm always grateful when a writer puts in the effort to make the presentation more interesting. It helps if a reader is already interested, but a truly gifted writer will stimulate curiosity and interest in a reader who initially doesn't care. A good writer will show the reader *why* they should be interested. It would be a boring world indeed if readers only stuck to what they already had an apriori interest in.

    2. You make an underlying assumption that presenting something in an interesting way (making a mystery, perhaps) tricks the reader and presents unsound arguments. I see no reason why one needs to lead to the other. Sure, you can get readers with overblown claims and lies, but just because it's possible doesn't mean you have to do it, and there's plenty of good writing that doesn't get the facts wrong.

  20. Livia, I apologize if it looks like I made any such assumption, it was not my intention. I am saying something that will ring familiar to people who have media or entertainment experience (and that includes designers of online communities):

    IF your [audience, reader, user, the appropriate term depends on what you do exactly] you design can freely choose whether to engage with your [live show, book, online community]

    IF you design for an ignorant, or troll-ish [audience etc]

    THEN you'll get one.

    Notice that this does not cover education. It makes complete sense for a high school teacher to present his lectures as mystery stories, because students did not choose him, nor the subject he is teaching. He in fact seduces them into changing their take on the subject in question, but THAT IS HIS JOB as an educator, and all is well.

    The corollary is that it is very dangerous to start out [writing etc.] by assuming people are more easily bored and less perspicacious than you are, and therefore you should make the case more compelling. It might end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Then, of course, I completely agree with you that nonfiction writes have no business writing sloppily out of arrogance. But rules like the "surprise rule" spelt out in your post just push in the opposite direction with respect to, well, most scientific truths, which sadly hold only in the context of a well defined context. No coincidence that your examples, 10% brain and the Great Wall of China... are both false!

    Having said that, thank you for bringing the topic out, and sorry if I sound pedantic (I do. And don't get me started about infographics).

  21. Thanks for your clarification Alberto. I do see your point of catering to the lowest common denominator. As a pop science blogger, I certainly feel that temptation sometimes.

  22. Although I found this post interesting, I think that you make a mistake by assuming that all nonfiction is narrative nonfiction. What about polemic? What about literary criticism [I don't mean book reviews]? What about philosophy?

    In each of these cases, the key is not trying to "hook" your readers but building an elegant and logical argument in favour of your point of view. That said, the opening sentence is of crucial importance.

    As an example, I might cite Knowledge or Certainty, which is an analysis of the difference between the scientific and religious world view. Not an easy read; I would call it a challenging read, not in the sense that it is in any way difficult to understand, merely that a reader will find that their own world view is under scrutiny.

  23. This is so true! It is hard for writers to keep people's attention, especially for non-fiction.

  24. I am grateful for this post. That looks dumb typed but I can't say it out loud except to the cat. I've been working on an adult literary novel for an embarrassing number of years--and it has real potential but it hasn't gelled. I'm due for a complete replot, and I was seriously stuck. I mean SERIOUSLY.
    You gave me the key. "Present a mystery at the beginning and reveal it at the end." The element of mystery is already IN the novel,(Duh!!) but bringing it to the front will give me a structure to hang the whole thing on. This is a VERY big deal. My brain just stopped hurting!! Thank you, merci,big hugs, and many kisses!!!

  25. Dennis and "Psychologist Perth": In the case of the types of nonfiction you mention, the writer's intended audience is generally invested enough in the topic not to need the elegant circus tricks Livia cites. Their interest is a given. People who read theseworks avidly might find them offensive in a work of criticism.

    Teaching this stuff is very challenging. (Teaching literature in high school can challenging for the same reasons, even though the books supposedly contain some of the tricks!) Which is why Cialdini reinvented himself...

  26. Thanks for sharing this valuable information - I'll keep it in mind when writing material.

  27. Made to Stick is one of the best books ever. I have read it and listened to the audio multiple times. it is starting to stick! Thanks for the reminder.