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February 20, 2017

Two Ingredients in Keeping Someone’s Attention

People don’t really hear you unless what you say benefits them.

I am convinced my math class drove a new teacher out of school my 11th grade year.

Mr. Stern came to Riverhead High School in 1998 as the chair of the math department and must have immediately regretted it. If we stopped talking long enough to acknowledge his presence, it was only to pester him about when we would actually use whatever he was teaching.

What's in it for us?
What’s in it for us?

We showed far less respect than students should have, but my classmates and I were expressing something valid: People only pay attention when they know what’s in it for them. If you have something to teach, say, sell, or present, you capture someone’s attention if you can tie it into their lives in a positive way. Give them the end benefit.

But there is another important key to keeping attention and being even more memorable, and you should present it before the end benefit.

You have probably heard the quotation, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” History teachers say this to try to place their course into the story arc of the centuries and make it interesting to their students. Notice that the saying warns of doom for those who are ignorant. This touches on a “point of personal peril”: most people do not want to be ignorant.

If you can emphasize a point of personal peril and then offer your solution, people will pay special attention.

I have found this to be true when I am teaching middle schoolers about avoiding student loans. My presentation should bore them, but I grab them with a simple intro that includes these elements:

  1. You have something millions of people wish they had: You owe no one anything. I call this your Zero State – and it’s invaluable! (Opening)
  2. In a few short years, people from every direction will try to take away your Zero State by enslaving you to debt. (Point of Personal Peril)
  3. You need a plan to avoid giving in to the pressure to borrow money. (End Benefit)

I will never get tired of seeing wide eyes and dropped jaws as I continue from there. Kids follow along while I show them slides about monthly payments and accrued interest! This is only possible because they now consider learning about finances to be an important part of making their lives better.

If you’re reading this and have some experience in marketing or sales, you may wonder why I don’t say “pain point” instead of “point of personal peril.” I prefer the latter when I plan to warn someone about future danger (as opposed to pain that they can identify right now). It also sounds more fun and epic.

As far as I remember, Mr. Stern never engaged us at this big picture level. He did not give us the end benefit of his lessons. If only he had told us we would actually use those crazily abstract math concepts later in life. If he had explained that I would one day use my knowledge of algebra and polynomials to divvy up tips between servers, food runners, and busboys at the Cooperage Inn restaurant, I would have shut up and paid him my full attention. But when I came back to school in the fall of my senior year, he was gone.

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