Warning! Distractions Ahead
Have something important to tell others? Don’t try to be the loudest voice. Make sure you’re the only voice
By André van Heerden, Communications Director
I hate to admit it, but I’m easily distracted. Actually, that’s not entirely true.
In the right place and time, I can be exceptionally focussed. But those places and times are becoming harder to find.
The other day I was reading an article on the Forbes magazine website, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of competing advertisements.* There was a banner ad at the top. There was a video ad that was automatically playing to the right and underneath that a flashing ad.
As I scrolled down, the video ad followed me on the left-hand side. And when I tried to read the article, the text kept being separated by either other ads or links to other related magazine stories. A number of times I wasn’t sure if the article continued past the break or not.
After reading the first paragraph, I had to pause the video and see if I could stop the flash ad. I wasn’t interested in anything that was being touted, and at this point I was just getting annoyed by all the extra noise.
But when I did begin reading again, I made the mistake of clicking on one of the additional story links, and a new page opened with what seemed like even more ads. Did Forbes even care if I read their article?
I wondered if they could track if anyone ever persevered to the end, and if someone did read it all, would the magazine consider that a success or a failure? Clearly, advertising was more important than the content that brought me there.
I remember going to talk to a grade 12 Technical Communications class about my experiences producing and directing movies. I brought movie posters and behind-the-scenes pictures— including one of Mr. T holding my daughter.
I began by showing movie trailers. I told stories about the crazy world of independent film making and the risks that people take.
But through it all, a number of students didn’t look up from their phones. The teacher had asked them to put them away, but without any fear of reprisals, many just ignored the request.
What shocked me was that I was a guest speaker talking about something new and interesting with many visuals—and I still couldn’t get everyone’s attention!
Which highlights the point that a big part of communicating something effectively is being able to shut out everything else. I love to tell stories, but hate it when my stories are interrupted. It ruins them.
Safety instructions on a work site are vital and could be life-saving. But if people are distracted, the message will be lost.
If something is important, you shouldn’t try to be the loudest voice. You should make sure you’re the only voice.
Eyes should be on you—not on mobile devices. This might mean waiting for the right moment, or imposing rules such as no phones at a meeting, or asking others to help focus those whose attention tends to wander.
I mentioned above that I can be exceptionally focussed. The key is limiting what I need to focus on. If I’m listening to a speaker, or reading a book, or watching a video, everything else disappears around me. But it has to be limited.
Effective communication needs that attention. The old truism of less is more couldn’t be more relevant in today’s digital, million-channel, world.
When you’re looking to reach others with a message, don’t try to hook them with silly jokes, or props, or even Mr. T. Aim to be the only thing that grabs their attention.
*I’ve since discovered that you can minimize online ads by switching your browser to reader mode. Here’s how to do it for Chrome.