Get Response to Your Writing: Master the 3 Phases of Attention

By Paul Thomas Zenki
You can't not look at this dog.

Make them stop, engage, and want more…

When you write, are you focused on what you have to say, who you are, and getting those across on the page?

If so, and if you write for any kind of response — audience engagement, votes, purchases, calls to set up new accounts, whatever — you can probably bump up your game a level by moving your attention elsewhere.

In short, stop focusing on getting your “content” to make sense on the page, and start climbing inside your readers’ heads instead. To do that, you have to first understand the three phases of attention, because each works in its own way and has its own demands for you as a writer.

Think about an elephant

When an elephant stumbles across a field of bamboo someplace, unless she’s got somewhere real important to go, she stops. Then she munches her way into it until she’s full or there’s no more bamboo.

If she’s ever back in the neighborhood, she’ll go out of her way to check the field, see if the buffet’s out again.

The elephant notices, engages, and seeks. One, two, three, in that order.

Your readers are like elephants — your article has to make them stop, engage, and (ideally) look for more.

So first, your writing has to get noticed. Not should, but has to. Fail at that, you’re a diarist.

Each line then has to make somebody want to read (or hear) the next one. Every line — sentences, headlines, subheads, captions, bursts, all of it.

The hardest part is to make your writing “sticky,” so after someone reads the last word, they’re looking to do something — order a product, start following you, donate to a cause, forgive you for completely forgetting their birthday while you played poker all night with friends, or any number of such purely hypothetical goals.

What are you doing here?

As a copywriter, when I first meet with clients for a project, I know they’re going to want to talk about themselves and their product or service. But I don’t care about that, at least not yet.

So to head off that discussion, I lead with two questions: Who are we talking to, and what do we want them to do?

Let’s look at how you got here, for example, reading this very sentence….

The headline that grabbed your attention is aimed at writers who want response — that’s who I’m talking to. I want y’all to read the article. So I tell you what’s in it for you in two short imperative clauses:

Get Response to Your Writing: Master the 3 Phases of Attention

Whether someone notices this headline depends primarily on non-conscious attention. Our eyes (and ears, etc.) are constantly scanning the world around us, and the decision to “notice” something, anything, happens pre-consciously.

Ever been in a crowd and suddenly you’re aware you just heard someone say your name? It’s kind of a weird feeling, because you didn’t necessarily hear it in real time — rather, you became aware of having just heard it.

That’s your non-conscious mind (which “hears” all sorts of things you’re never consciously aware of) deciding that this one particular sound is important. And so, a split-second after the fact, it serves up an almost instantaneous memory of that sound, while still rendering everything else as a murmur of background noise.

To make the elephants stop and look, you have to trigger that unconscious level of attention. Your headline has to “jump out” at your target audience from the page, like bamboo to an elephant. It doesn’t matter if the cheetahs take no notice of it, as long as you’re not talking to them.

There are all sorts of ways to achieve this. But you’ll only do so by hit-and-miss as long as you’re focused on content while writing your headline (“Does this sum up my article?”) rather than on who you’re talking to and what you want them to do. Does your headline trigger your target audience to stop browsing and focus on something they want — information, inspiration, a solution to a problem, prestige, a good laugh, whatever? That’s your only goal.

Take a look at these current top headlines from The Guardian and notice how they jab you in the ribs, sparking your curiosity:

Nurdles: the worst toxic waste you’ve probably never heard of

Male survivors unite to expose sexual abuse at college football’s biggest rivals

Trump called aides hours before Capitol riot to discuss how to stop Biden victory

The “worst toxic waste,” and you’ve never even heard of it? Sexual abuse of macho men? Evidence that a US president attempted a coup? Every one of those headlines could have been written differently, and arguably more accurately, so that you’d pass them right by:

Should pre-production plastic pellets be classified as hazardous?

Victims demand justice despite statute of limitations

Trump’s calls to lawyers on January 5th raise legal concerns

See what I mean? The fact that you’ve probably never heard the term “nurdle,” the rivalry between Michigan and OSU, these points are not central to their respective stories. And why write “hours before” rather than “the day before”? That’s focus on attention v. focus on content right there.

Same goes for the feature image and the snippet. When you saw that dog next to the headline for this story, somewhere in your brain you knew you’d been hooked, you knew the dog’s only purpose was to do what the header said: grab your attention. Which, in this case, was proof of concept — it made you want to click, just to see if the story would keep making good on its promise.

Then everything changes

The phase of non-conscious attention ends almost immediately. As soon as your audience starts reading, paying conscious attention, they’re on a ride they can stop and disembark from at any moment.

Imagine if you ran an amusement park in which all your customers could, simply by letting their minds wander, instantly be somewhere else. Think how many corndog and snow-cone sales you’d lose, just from people getting momentarily bored.

Welcome to response writing!

Your article can make make perfect sense — each idea clear as a bell and your conclusion iron-clad — and still be too damn dull to read. That’s why, for example, the intro to this article consists of just four sentences across three paragraphs. And why it asks you about yourself and your writing. If I’m making my case (focus on me and what I have to say) instead of engaging you, it’s adios!

Response writing is like walking. It’s a process of continually going off-balance and momentarily regaining balance.

The caption on the feature image puts you slightly off-balance, because it calls attention to your act of reading it. The lede sentence is a soft pitch that makes you comfortable again:

When you write, are you focused on what you have to say, who you are, and getting those across on the page?

The second sentence throws you off once more by saying that this well-worn advice is actually the wrong thing to do.

The next paragraph recovers balance by showing you what you should be doing. But it’s followed by a non-sequitur subheader:

Think about an elephant

I didn’t have to do that. I could have just said your audience “notices, engages, and seeks.” But the bamboo-munching elephant triggers your visual cortex, the dominant sensory cortex in human brains. And the slight knock off-balance piques your curiosity just enough. (Go too far and you get confusion, which you never want!)

Same with the next subhead “What are you doing here?” followed by an apparent non-sequitur about meeting with clients, which itself makes an odd claim. And again, four sentences across three paragraphs, and the subhead gets paid off: “Let’s look at how you got here, for example, reading this very sentence….”

Now, I have to pause and say, I’m not asking you to try to write like I do. This isn’t about style or voice or any particular technique. The point is, you must constantly be creating curiosity, and satisfying it in a way that creates further curiosity. Be conscious of doing that, because if you don’t, the clarity of your writing can never compensate for what’s missing — engagement.

The paradox at the end of the story

Remember how I said every sentence needs to make you want to read the next one? Well, what about the last sentence? How can it generate curiosity for what’s next if it’s at the end?

Let’s go back to our questions. We have our audience here. What do we want them to do?

We now require a third type of attention — not noticing, not focusing, but searching. You must understand the unstated question you’re leaving in your reader’s mind: How can I get this thing? How can I stop that event from happening? How can I repeat the experience I just had?

If you want them to buy a product, you should leave them convinced they’d be foolish not to buy it, and that they should do so right away. Money-back guarantees and limited-time offers are great for that.

If you want them to commit to a cause, you should leave them convinced that they can make a difference, and that they’ll regret it if they don’t. Clicking on that big bright call-to-action button should feel like a no-brainer.

Now little old me? Hey, I’m just here to help, folks.

Which reminds me, there’s a third reason I conjured up the elephant in the bamboo patch: You’ll remember it.

Readers are like elephants; writing is like walking; every sentence should make you want to read the next one; who am I talking to and what do I want them to do; does my writing trigger unconscious attention, continual engagement, and seeking in that order? That’s what you’ll recall, even after you’ve forgotten where you heard it.

Now, of course, I could throw in a blatant pitch for you to browse my profile, something like this:


But see, that’s way too obvious a move, not really my style, so it’s not something I’d ever actually do. It’s just an example.

That said, it is a functional link. I mean, in case, you know, you were wondering about that.

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Header image: Photo by Tamer Torque

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.