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Three Ways to Capture Your Audience's Attention

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Word count: 997
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Many of our clients worry that they don’t reach the people they most want to influence.

The problem comes when we start thinking about an audience as a disembodied, amorphous group. We don’t picture them as individual readers. That makes it easy to forget that pretty much everyone likes clear, vivid writing. I want to talk about the vivid part here.

Here are a few simple things you can do to get people to pay attention to your message:

1. Find the Comparison

Abstractions are hard to grasp and harder to care about. Give people an image that they can picture. The Humane Society did this beautifully in a recent newsletter. It is campaigning to end the practice of confining nearly 300 million hens to small cages for their entire lives.

I typically try to buy cage-free eggs. But I had never really pictured the plight of these hens until I read this sentence: “Each hen is afforded less space than a single sheet of paper on which to live.”


A single sheet of paper? For their whole lives? I was holding a single sheet of paper while I read that. A hen can’t even turn around on a single piece of paper. The idea of describing a hen’s cramped space in terms of something that we all shuffle around every day was inspired. And it did it for me. Companies that raise cage-free, happy hens are the only ones I’ll buy eggs from.

Find a way to make your points vivid using images from everyday life. That will get your audience’s attention.

2. Put People in the Middle of the Action

As a young reporter covering police and courts, I learned this by accident. I was covering my first murder trial and I was nervous. My editors told me they expected a good story that they could put on the front page. I had a tight deadline to write and file the story on this high-profile case of a man accused of killing his wife.

During his cross-examination, this heavy-set man with hooded eyes began sobbing as he admitted he shot his wife after he learned that she had been having an affair.

As he sobbed he pounded the panel of the witness stand over and over again. I took notes as fast as I could and then, with little time before deadline, filed a story with a verbatim account of the exchange between the man and the prosecutor.

My editors loved the story and, perhaps more to the point, I learned a valuable lesson: put the readers in the middle of the story and then get out of the way.

You can do this too. If a top official of your foundation is testifying and gets in a spirited exchange with legislators, print the dialogue and include it when you want to show an audience, such as your board, that your executives are out there getting heard. It’s much more effective than simply including a bland, stilted quote.

Resist any temptation to manufacture a dialogue or to tweak it (much). This only works if it’s genuine.

3. Notice the Detail

It’s the details that grab us. You know that in your personal life. What do you love most about your spouse, your child, your dog? It’s something specific.

Details are just as important in conveying the impact of your program. David Gustafson, Ph.D., a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, understands this brilliantly. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation hired him to manage a nearly $10 million program that seeks to help substance abuse centers admit clients more quickly and keep them in treatment longer.

Gustafson wanted to learn first-hand what people go through in trying to get substance abuse treatment. So he posed as a heroin addict.  He created a story for himself: He had been shooting heroin for 30 years, his wife had kicked him out of the house and he had lost his job as a forklift driver. Gustafson described the order as he attempted to get himself checked into a Wisconsin treatment program.

At the intake interview, he endured two-and-a-half hours of personal, sometimes humiliating questions. The clerk told him there were no beds available and to call back in a week. Gustafson did and received an answering machine. He called back every week for seven weeks before he was notified that a bed was available.

By that time he was angry. He also had a first-hand look at the shame and roadblocks that people trying to kick their substance abuse problem face. He could tell the story, with details, because he had walked in their shoes.

It is the details that will capture the attention of your audience. In order to get those details try to spend a day in the life of the people you serve in your programs.

For instance, if you have a program that seeks to make it easier for people to get health insurance, find out what happens to clients who must go through the process of applying for Medicaid. What are the steps? What hassles do they run into? What kind of service do they receive? Do this and you will have the details you need to convey the impact of your program.

When you’re struggling with ways to engage a key audience, think about weaving in any of these three ideas:

  • Find a comparison from everyday life that brings home your point.


  • Put your audience in the middle of the action through capturing dialogue of the people that you want to highlight.


  • Find the details about the lives of the people you serve by walking in their shoes.

When you take these steps, you show that your programs are important enough to take care in convening them. You’ll also learn something new about them and that will make your communications stronger.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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