How to Win Your Reader’s Attention
Join me in a quick thought experiment about reading and writing.
Imagine that you’re strolling through an old-fashioned arcade with a few tokens in your pocket. At this arcade, each game costs a token, but most dispense tokens as you play and meet goals.
Some games only cost one token to start but don’t pay out much. Others may cost a few tokens to play, but return more tokens if you continue.
Are you with me?
Let’s say the person strolling through the arcade is your reader, and the games are the articles, books, reports, and other content clamoring for their reading attention. The tokens represent their mental capacity or attention available to spend on your writing.
Assume that you lure them over to your writing with a well-crafted headline or fantastic book cover. Here’s how the game works:
The player wins a token whenever any of these things happen:
- The work tickles their curiosity.
- The writing satisfies that curiosity.
- They discover learn something new.
- The work resonates with their own experience.
- They encounter a beautiful image or memorable passage.
- They smile or laugh.
- They get caught up in a story.
Sounds good, right? Your brilliant work will spew out tokens!
But wait. They will have to pay extra tokens to keep going when certain things happen, such as:
- They run into an unfamiliar word or acronym that they must decode based on the context (1 token)
- They run into an unfamiliar word or acronym they cannot figure out by context (2 tokens)
- They wade through three consecutive sentences with multiple clauses or delayed verbs (1 token)
- They get lost in a sentence and have to read it twice to make sense of it (2 tokens)
- They read 300 words about abstract ideas without a single concrete detail (1 token)
Once they run out of tokens, they’re done.
Cognitive burden and reading
This thought experiment offers insight into the cognitive burden that our writing imposes on readers. The game tokens represent the reader’s attention, or the cognitive capacity they bring to the reading. When your writing resonates with people, they have more attention to give it.
Good writing creates a positive feedback loop that keeps the reader involved. And it explains so much.
For example, why do I keep reading some books with unfamiliar words and put down others? Because sometimes books are paying me back with beautiful writing or fascinating concepts.
Or, why am I perfectly happy to navigate through long sentences from some authors and situations, and not others? Again, if the writing makes me curious or entertains me, it’s like a game spitting out tokens. I’ll keep going.
How many tokens do your readers have?
Return to the arcade image once again. Two people approach your game. One has ten tokens in their pocket, the other has only two—and must pay one to read.
The ten-token reader may slog through a long sentence to get to the payoff, but the other may run out of tokens and walk away.
As a writer, you don’t know how much attention readers will bring to your work. If you assume everyone will read deeply, you might make them work for your insights. You’ll lose those readers who simply don’t have the attention budget available.
How many tokens do your readers have? How much attention?
Rigging the game to favor the reader
How would your latest blog post/article/book chapter play as a game in this arcade? How does this change the way you think about your writing?
You can rig the game in their favor in many ways:
- Eliminating unnecessary costs, like long sentences or unfamiliar words
- Creating earlier payoffs. A well-crafted introduction might dispense a token of curiosity or resonance
What would you do differently in your writing when thinking of this analogy?
Want to dive deeper?
Read more about cognitive burden and ease in these posts: