That’s Intriguing #121: How Can I Motivate People to Pay Attention to Me?




“Let’s address the elephant in the room. ‘YO Elephant!’” – humorist Gene Weingarten

An executive hired me to help him with his habit of “over-talking.” He knew it was undermining his impact and wanted to learn to be more concise so people would give him their attention.

I asked him, “Do you know what the elephant in the room in every interaction is?”

“No, what?”

“How long will this take?”

“I know it’s important to get to the point. I just don’t know how to do that.”

I knew, as an engineer, he would respect metrics, so I said, “Force yourself to get to the point by assigning metrics to your business interactions from now on. Think about it. Twitter is 140 characters. Not 151. The message won’t send if it’s too long. Snapchat is 8 seconds. TED talks are 18 minutes. People are a lot more likely to give you their time if you only ask for a little of it. How about your meetings? Do they have a time limit?”

“Not really. We take however long we need to get through our agenda.”

“Uh oh. You’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law: a task expands to the time allowed for it?

Horn’s Law is, ‘Communication expands to the time allowed for it.’ From now on, everyone in meetings, including you, has three minutes max to report out on each issue.”

While discussing this, a rather impressive storm moved into our area. As soon as lightning flashed, my dog Murphy started pacing and panting. I told my client, “Excuse me, I need to put a Thunder-Shirt on Murphy. She gets panicked by these storms.”

He watched me Velcro Murph into her Thunder-Shirt and asked, “How does that work?”

“Well, it’s like swaddling a baby. Infants feel insecure when they flail around because they feel like they’re falling. As soon as you wrap them snugly in a blanket, they feel safe because their world is now finite. It works the same way with Murphy. As soon as she’s swaddled in a Thunder-Shirt, she calms down because she feels contained.”

My client started laughing and said, “Sam, that’s what we’re doing. We’re putting a Thunder-Shirt on my interactions. We’re swaddling my communication.”

T.S. Elliott said, “When forced to work within a tight framework, the imagination is taxed to produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”

T.S. Elliott is right. If your interaction is “sprawling all over the place,” it needs a tighter framework. Interrupt and assign a snug timeline that forces everyone to speak more succinctly and purposefully.

Assigning clear start-and-finish time boundaries is a win for everyone. An association exec told me, “I think I know why we’ve had trouble getting volunteers for our committees. Busy people don’t want to agree to something when they have no idea how much time they’re committing.

We’re going to put a Thunder-Shirt on our committee meetings and promise there will only be one a month, (except for the month before our convention). We’ll let our busy volunteers know they can trust us to keep meetings to 90 minutes max, that we’ll start and end on time, and everyone will be limited to 3 minute reports. I’m confident more members will get involved if they know exactly what they’re signing up for, up front.”

How about you? Would putting a Thunder-Shirt on your interactions help people stay focused and get to the point, faster? Why not give it try?


[photo via Flickr User Maja Dumat // Creative Commons]
  1. What a great analogy!

  2. Well, I’m not of the opinion that constriction is *always* best: when reporting, or when you’re not able to decide, time constraint is a good idea, but giving plenty of time is the better way if you want that ideas pop up, motivate coworkers, give voice also to minorities or who isn’t used to express his opinion. In this regard I’m actually enjoying the read of the book “Time to think” by Nancy Kline.

  3. Thanks for that feedback Patricia and Alexander:
    Alexander, i hear your point and don’t mean to infer that putting a Thurdershirt – time limits – on our communication is always the best option.
    It’s certainly helpful for people who tend to ramble and be verbose. They start editing themselves and leaving out the parts people skip – as author Elmore Leonard used to say.
    In our impatient world, where goldfish have longer attention spans than we humans do, being concise and getting to the point, faster can help us capture and keep people’s interest.

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