Business Bookshelf: How to win attention and influence people

How do people become seen as experts? This was the question posed by an acquaintance who had become enraged by a peer’s expert status. Was it media laziness that had boosted the rent-a-quote’s profile? The number of Twitter followers, maybe?

My acquaintance clung to the perhaps idealistic view that an expert should be judged by one thing: his or her work.

The author of a new book, “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention,” would say this is hopelessly naive.

Ben Parr is managing partner of San Francisco-based DominateFund, an early-stage venture capital firm. He explains that he wrote “Captivology” out of “necessity.” In his world — that of technology and start-ups — attention is the difference between success and failure.

New businesses need the attention of investors, the press, users and employees. Entrepreneurs, he discovered, came to him not just for the money but for his firm’s expertise in attracting attention.


Our brains are barraged by all sorts of attention-seeking devices and media. There is discussion of “peak attention,” suggesting that, like oil, attention is an exhaustible commodity. This has created a cottage industry of life coaches teaching people how to manage the information overload and digitally detox.

This book, published by HarperOne, takes the opposite approach. Drawing on scientific research and psychologists, Parr sets out to discover how to win attention. He finds seven triggers, or tools, to do so.

These triggers are automaticity (sensory cues), framing (adapting to someone’s view), disruption (challenging expectations), reward (motivating people intrinsically or extrinsically) and reputation (drawing on experts to build trust).

Others are mystery (creating suspense to create intrigue) and acknowledgment (fostering a deep connection as people tend to pay attention to those who provide them with validation and understanding).

Some of this is blindingly obvious. Other advice is sensible: Be careful how you shock, for example. The author tells of a contest in which a participant suddenly shouted in a judge’s ear. It backfired. The judge was so furious he had to be taken outside to calm down.

The key is to be surprising but significant, ensuring your message or product resonates with its audience.

As my angry acquaintance discovered, becoming an expert is key to garnering attention.

Charismatic authorities “have the capacity to alter the way we direct our attention by the sheer force of their gravitas and ideas,” Parr writes. The wisdom of crowds reinforces such expertise.

This can take time, Parr points out. So he suggests using the reputation trigger. In a press release, for example, mention your enterprise is “funded by Google Ventures” (if true), he writes. On the receiving end of such releases, I am unconvinced this works anymore.

The book, which is spryly written, seems slightly dated already. But as a tool to analyze possible methods for garnering attention, it is a worthwhile read — if you can concentrate on it.

Emma Jacobs is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.