Why People Stop Paying Attention to You

I’m about to share a harsh truth about the way you communicate. Brace yourself.

Chances are that, today:

  • You will send out dozens – if not hundreds – of emails.
  • You’ll probably share an opinion or tell a story at a meeting or in your break room.
  • You might try to get someone to buy something, donate something, act differently.

And…chances are your audience won’t make it to the end.

They will stop paying attention. Perhaps way before then.

It’s a harsh truth when you think about the work you put into your emails and conversations.

So don’t think of it as the person communicating. Instead, think of how you feel when you’re on the other end.

How often do you really read a whole email, listen to a whole story, get through a website homepage before you move on…before you get distracted, think of what you’re going to eat for lunch, remember you forgot to move the laundry to the dryer?

When you really think about it, how much do you really pay attention to someone’s whole message?

The truth is we are busy people. We’ve got a lot of thoughts competing for our attention. And technology spoils us – giving us immediate access to information and shrinking our collective attention spans.

Which means that the attention spans of the people you want to reach are shrinking, too.

The other truth is that we fall madly in love with our messages.

We  believe we are compelling communicators with important message to share…that if we just explain things enough, that if we include examples, reiterate important points, people will listen.

I say the opposite is true.

Go on for any length of time and people won’t listen.

We’ve all perfected how to stop paying attention…

  • Pretending to listen when we’re not
  • Skimming messages to hit what we hope are the main points
  • Acting like we read a whole email or report when we haven’t

So how do you get people to follow your words to the end?

Simple. Use less of them.

Think of what you really want to say, write your message, read it…then swallow hard and cut it. Then cut it again.

Even if they start out short, most emails can be shorter. Most stories can be shorter. Your questions and requests can be shorter.

Even if you already strive to keep your stuff short, trust me, you can cut it more.

By about a third, maybe more.

I know because I practice this every day.  And it turns out even my most carefully crafted pieces of writing can be slashed.

Don’t believe me? Open up your inbox and read three emails.

Think about how many extra words there are, if you can stand to read them all. I bet at least two of the three go on too long.

Even better, read the last three messages you sent. Try reading them out loud. See how long it takes. 

If you want your message heard, keep is short.  Introduce your topic, give a few details, wrap it up.

Know that you will love your words more than anybody. And know the signs you’re going too long.

  • If you are writing an email and there are several paragraphs involved, chances are you can cut one or two. So do it.
  • If  the word “and” comes up between adjectives or points, chances are you can cut one side or the other. So make a choice.
  • If you play with margins to get your letter to fit on one page, stop it. Then cut it.

In the end, if you don’t cut your words, people will stop paying attention anyway.

And the only one who’ll get through your whole message is you.

This week, pay attention to the length of your emails, stories and discussions. Fall out of love with your words. Practice cutting them by a third. I promise you can do it.

Pay attention to communication from others. And when you stop paying attention yourself.

In the end – it’ll make you more effective in everything you do.

‘Nuff said.

Now, go do good…and do it well.


8 responses to “Why People Stop Paying Attention to You”

  1. Emily Davis Avatar

    GREAT thoughts as always, Deirdre. I’m going to practice this week for sure.

  2. Karla Avatar

    Bravo, Deirdre. Here’s the most significant line in your blog:

    So don’t think of it as the person communicating. Instead, think of how you feel when you’re on the other end.

    This is the key to effective communication.

    Its not important what you want to say; it is important what people want to hear from you.

  3. Hannah Avatar

    Totally! I edit for a living and cannot tell you how hard it is to reign people in when they’re so in love with their words. I’m always preaching the importance of shorter articles. Plus, it forces you to choose more powerful words that convey your meaning succinctly.

  4. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Great insight Deirdre! I’ve learned what I say isn’t always what people hear. So keep it simple is right on target.

  5. On Da Road Avatar

    Good stuff Deirdre .. keep it simple .. then make it simpler!

  6. joseph Avatar

    Beautiful. Thank you for your post.
    May we all remember that everyone (including those reading our emails) is listening to WII FM. What’s In It For Me?

  7. Duane Anderson Avatar

    This is a great post, although a little long. All kidding aside, this is why Twitter is so valuable. If you can’t say it in 144 characters or less, it shouldn’t be said at all. Just my 2 cents.

  8. Frank Avatar

    I was expecting an article that explains why people won’t pay attention to me, but instead this is a business-oriented article about sending messages. The title is misleading.