The classic sales acronym AIDA: Attention, Interest, Desire and Action, puts attention right where it belongs — at the very beginning. If you want to tell your story and influence people, you’ve got to first get their attention. But what about the focus of your own attention?
In her recent book, Rapt, Winifred Gallagher distinguishes between two kinds of attention. The first she calls stimulus-driven. It’s the attention that advertisers and the media aim to capture when they bombard our senses with color, sound, movement and emotion. The other kind is voluntary. That’s when we make the conscious choice to pay attention to one thing rather than another, deliberately focusing on what’s relevant at the moment rather than succumbing to what dazzles our senses. With deliberate attention, we determine what to ignore and what to focus on.
Like time, attention is a precious commodity. We talk about attention in the language of value. We pay attention; we capture others’ attention; we negotiate in response to all the demands on our attention. These days to accomplish our goals we’ve got to guard both our time and our attention, and not allow ourselves to be easily distracted by irrelevant demands (“Is it time to check e-mail again?”).
How Misplaced Attention Trips Us Up
If you’re in a sales meeting and feel anxious about the outcome, it’s likely that’s what you’re paying attention to – your anxiety. When you do you’re being run by stimulus-driven attention. Your attention is in the wrong place and you need to bring it back to what’s actually happening in the conversation so you can truly communicate.
This is one reason that sales training puts so much emphasis on motivation and why positive rewards are so much more effective than downside penalties. Anticipating that shiny new car lubricates communication a lot better than worrying about ending up with the set of steak knives and looking for a new job, like the salesmen in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.
Being able to focus attention where and when we want isn’t an intrinsic skill – it takes discipline, practice and a flexible, alert mind. You don’t have to be diagnosed with ADD to notice how readily attention wanders. But attention, like a golf swing or public speaking, is a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened. And there are many ways to go about it.
First off is staying physically fit and healthy. Studies have shown for decades that when we’re tired and run down our attention suffers. Getting a good night’s sleep, consistent aerobic exercise and eating healthy foods keep both body and mind flexible and sharp.
Practices like Tai Chi, meditation and yoga can reduce anxiety and help cultivate a more relaxed state of mind, so we have less mental static and more clarity.
Puzzles and problems requiring focus and concentration are also great ways to train attention. The effort exerted in paying attention to the ball in fast moving games like tennis builds dexterity that’s mental as well as physical.
It’s only in the last twenty or thirty years that neuroscientists have been able to observe the physical changes that take place in the brain when thoughts and attention are directed purposefully. It’s now understood that the brain is plastic and malleable and that patterns of behavior like easily giving in to distraction can be transformed for the better. With training, neural pathways in the brain change and emotional and behavioral patterns like distractibility change as well. So noticing when we become distracted is the first step in taking more control of our power of attention. From that awareness we can learn to cultivate a more pliant and cooperative mind.