Monday, January 12, 2009


I heard, whilst watching the complete series 2 box set of The West Wing, Toby Zeigler mention something called "the science of listener attention" - I immediately googled it but could only find specific references to the episode and the script:

You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper. Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That's 'cause I'm a speechwriter and I know how to make a point. It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with "lowers" and "raises" there? It's called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites and now you end with the one that's not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And that's it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one peace. I'm sure I've seen that on a sign somewhere.

I didn't think any more of it until I read what guestblogger Gareth L Powell was writing on Futurismic:

There are tried and tested techniques that advertisers have been using for decades – techniques that can be easily adapted to improve the response you get from your emails, subscription drives and blog posts.

The best known of these techniques is undoubtedly AIDCA. This formula is so powerful that it has remained in constant use since the 1950s, and has recently found a new lease of life with email and online marketing.

AIDCA stands for: Attention, Interest, Desire, Conviction, and Action. Over the next six days, I’ll be guiding you through each of these stages, giving you a powerful tool to use when you’re trying to elicit a response from your readership.

A coincidence, no? AIDCA sounds a lot like the written equivalent of the science of listener attention.

And further serendipity ensued with the discovery of this gem of an article by Cory Doctorow on how to write productively amidst the storm of distraction and noise that we are all constantly confronted with:

Researching isn't writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don't. Don't give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day's idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type "TK" where your fact should go, as in "The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite."

My recent hostility towards the stormy cloud of the media was piqued by reading two excellent books by Nicholas Nassim Taleb: Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan.

In both books Taleb criticises (amongst much else) the idea that people are "well informed" if they read the newspaper every morning.

Taleb describes the difference between the contents of daily newspapers and the contents of published books as akin to the difference between noise and signal.

No one can realistically know what medium-term relevance the daily churn of events will have on the markets, or the economy, or science, or technology.

Those events that are significant are so widely discussed and reported that it is practically impossible not to know that they are happening.

Which brings me back to the science of listener attention: if advertisers have such supposedly powerful techniques to get my attention how do I continue to effectively control my informational consumption? How do I robustify my memetic input? How do I screen my prospective mindmates? How do I let the good in and leave the bad on the magazine stand?

By reading more books and fewer nespapers.

[Gareth L Powell is a guestblogger on Futurismic]


In Fooled by Randomness Taleb mentions a preference for the classics, on the basis that if they've remained relevant and discussed for so long they must have value to them.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that lastingness is a guarantor of quality: but I take the basic point that if literature has survived for a long time it's worthy of respect.

{Although on a more technical point: later on in the book Taleb discusses the survivorship bias (go Google it). How does he know that the classics (i.e. ancient greek and roman literature and philosophy) are not simply prevalent because of the survivorship bias? Perhaps if the Library of Alexandria hadn't burnt down we'd consider the works in there to be of superior quality? Lasting historical relevance of books is a randomness-prone property. However I still agree with Taleb that reading about long-lasting ideas and reading older books is a workable heuristic for dealing with the "what will I read" question...}

He also mentions he reads weekly magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker on the basis that these have had enough time for news and ideas to be processed and contain potentially useful knowledge, as opposed to irrelevant data.

And yes: I am aware of the irony that I've resolved to read and write more but have also been watching The West Wing but whaddayagonnado - it has already taught me something today:

Beware of political speechwriters.

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