Any of your future requests for someone's time should have a high return on attention.

by Tim Sanders | February 05, 2013 | (2)

Recently, a longtime friend of mine asked me to give his college graduate son some advice on “making it in the modern world of business.” He was about to be dispatched to a Fortune 500 company, where he’d start out in sales.

As I pondered my reply, I paused at the word “modern” in my friend’s request. Years ago, I’d likely have advised his son to build relationships, find a mentor and look for opportunities to add value beyond his task. But in the modern world, where we are inundated with noisy requests for our time, there’s a special skill anyone must develop to survive. 

We need to give high return on attention (ROA). It’s the scarcest resource in the world today, especially for successful people who are inundated with requests for their time and focus. Think about how much quieter our world was only 20 years ago: no email, no smartphones, no social media. We had the luxury to devote attention to phone calls, meetings and conversations. But today, most of us are flooded with attention requests, and the more we move up, the worse it gets.

In many of your business lives, you need other’s attention to succeed. If they don’t come to your meeting, return your phone calls or read your emails, you can’t get anything done. And if you haven’t noticed, it’s harder than ever to get time with people. Why? 

You can’t punch through the filter. English psychologist and researcher Donald Broadbent developed a theory years ago about how humans use filtering to defend themselves against information overload or deception. This filter helps people ignore requests for attention, decline them or instantly delete them to maintain a modicum of free space, “to think.” 

The more noise, the thicker the filters between your message and your target recipient’s consciousness. And today, the world is incredibly noisy. So how do we break on through? In Broadbent’s research, there is a workaround to this filter: perceived value. When someone thinks they should pay attention to a trusted source of high-value information, they suspend their filtering. 

The secret to success, then, is to consistently deliver high return on attention to others, especially those that matter. If time spent with you or your message adds value every time, then you’ll have a competitive advantage over those that don’t. You’ll be able to move mountains, because people will actually listen to you. 

How do we give high ROA? It all has to do with respecting other’s time and attention and having a strategy behind each request for it. It also requires our willingness to break some bad habits. 

Be Judicious 

Don’t call someone just to chat—have a reason behind the interruption. Don’t call meetings just to “catch up.” Have a desired outcome in mind that helps everyone who attends. When you email or call someone proactively, you are launching an interruption. Make each one count. 

For your email requests, make it simple to glean value from reading your notes. Put your request or the source of urgency in the subject line. Fit it all in the preview pane, don’t write War & Peace. Don’t get attachment happy, and always think: Less information preserves my readership. 

Consider canceling meetings without meaning. Standing meetings are like standing water: They stink over time. If there’s not a reason behind it, then save everyone the time (usually an hour or two) and attention. 

Prepare Thyself

Outline what you want to accomplish in the meeting or conversation. In many cases, I have an outline about the reason for the interaction, the perspective to be shared, what’s in it for us and what we should do next. If you wing it, you’ll come off like a conference presenter who’s just yacking off the top of his head. 

Focus on the Conversation 

Nothing says your attention is worthless like being distracted during conversations. If you want to deliver high ROA, don’t take a phone or tablet to your meeting. If you are on the phone, turn off your screen or shut your laptop. If you want people to listen to you, listen to them when they are talking, and create a 50/50 conversation. Sometimes, when people feel like they’ve been heard, they greatly value their conversational partner even more than when they’ve “been schooled.” 

Find a Takeaway 

In almost every interaction, especially between smart people, a pearl of wisdom, insight or observation emerges. If you are listening and paying attention, you’ll likely spot it and hold it up at the end. When you do, you give your conversational partner the feeling of satisfaction, that our time together actually accomplished something.

Follow up on Their Investment

In almost every meeting, there are action items that come up, especially when you are working on a project or a problem. Never let them fall between the cracks, because soon they will be forgotten and the only memory of the meeting was that “it was a waste of time.” 

During the meetings or conversations, take notes and highlight action items. If possible, conclude the interaction by confirming them, along with their delivery dates. Then schedule, execute and close the loop without fanfare, just the facts. 

Each one of us has a brand, a promise of an experience or outcome that sits in the mind of others. This promise is built by our consistent actions over time. Each interaction adds or subtracts from its strength. Sure, it takes more work in conversation to deliver high ROA, and likely requires you to exhibit much patience. But it’s worth it, especially if you depend on the buy-in of others to move forward. If you want to succeed in our modern world, you need to be the signal—not the noise. One+


Tim Sanders
TIM SANDERS, a top-rated speaker on the lecture circuit, is the author of Saving the World at Work: What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference (Doubleday, September 2008). Check out is Web site at www.timsanders.com.
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Comments 2

  1. Bridget DiCello 25 Feb

    Love the Return on Attention skill Tim!  I like to have an agenda/plan for every conversation, agreed upon by both people, communicated ahead of time so each person can prepare.  Even if that agenda is created to promote efficiency; maybe even more importantly, it manages the perceived value.
  2. Artur 28 Mar

    Hope some leads forward in the right direction!

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