Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger talks with Knowledge at Wharton about his latest study, which offers important takeaways for marketers, advertisers, influencers, and anyone who wants to craft more compelling written communication, especially in the age of the attention economy. The study, “What Holds Attention? Linguistic Drivers of Engagement,” was co-authored by David Schweidel, marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, and Wendy W. Moe, marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. It was published in the Journal of Marketing.


How to Captivate Audiences in the Attention Economy

Angie Basiouny: You make this point in the paper that it really isn’t enough to capture people’s attention — you have to sustain it. Talk to us about this paper and what it means.

Jonah Berger: It’s often said that we live in the attention economy, and we’re constantly trying to get and hold others’ attention. Salespeople want prospects to listen to their pitches, leaders want employees to pay attention to their presentations, and managers want their colleagues to pay attention to their ideas. We post on social, write emails, and draft all sorts of content.

But not all the things we share get attention.  How can craft content that’s more likely to hold the attention of whatever audience we’re trying to reach?

Attention is a limited resources and people can’t pay attention to seven different things at once. If audiences are paying attention to one thing, that means they’re paying less attention to something else. Whether we’re talking about the workplace, acquiring customers, or our personal lives, getting and holding attention is key to success. The question then becomes: How do we win in this attention economy?

Basiouny: This paper talks about something you call “processing ease,” which is simply the amount of cognitive work that it takes to read something. How does that relate to creating content that draws attention?

Berger: We analyzed tens of thousands of pieces of content from a variety of different websites and news providers — everything from newspapers to blog sites and everything from front-page news and politics to financial news and technology. And we analyzed what leads to longer reads, or why some content leads people to keep reading more than others.

Think about the last time you read something online.  Sometimes we read the whole thing. Sometimes we read half of it. Sometimes we read only a couple sentences before we stop and go on to doing something else. What about the way the content is written holds the audiences’ attention?

We all know the title is important.  If we think of social media, for example, the image and the headline are going to be what gets people to click into something. For search, the right search words to get people to open something to pay attention to it initially. But if we want that content to impact people, to change their minds and drive action, it’s hard to do that if they don’t stay tuned for the rest of the pitch.

We were interested in what keeps people engaged, not just what leads them to open something. In analyzing these tens of thousands of pieces of content, controlling for what topics it focused on or how the headline was written, we wondered whether certain ways of writing, of architecting content, would hold people’s attention.

We found two key buckets had a big impact. The first was something called processing ease, and the second relates to emotion.

The simplest way to think about processing ease is how easy it is to consume the content. Sometimes we’re reading or listening to something, and it just flows. It’s almost effortless to read or listen to. Other times, staying engaged is more difficult. Even if we’re interested in the topic, we can’t seem to slog through it just because it feels like a lot of work. What we don’t realize is that effort depends on the content itself. It’s not just feeling; the writing is creating that feeling.

Using more familiar words, for example, make content easier to process. Take something really simple, like the word “car” versus “automobile.” Both are words that we know, but “car” is something we hear a lot more often than “automobile.” It’s just a more familiar word, and that familiarity makes it easier to process.

Similarly, linguistic concreteness also makes things easier to read. Imagine I said something is happening “soon,” versus something is happening “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” is a much more concrete, specific word. I know exactly when that thing is going to happen. Concreteness often relates to whether we can form a mental image of something, so there are ways of writing to make things more concrete.

These are just a couple of the features we identified that shaped processing ease, but the key insight here is subtle shifts in writing can make it easier to move through the content, which makes people more likely to continue to pay attention.

Even something as simple as syntax. I don’t want to get too far in the weeds, but we looked at aspects of the syntax that make it easier to keep consuming the content. Sometimes you’ll read something, and there’s one type of structure in one sentence, and a different type of structure in the next sentence. That makes it more difficult to move through the content. Everything from the words we use, the structure we use, all of these things can shape how easy it is to consume the content and how likely people are to keep reading.

Using Emotional Language to Grab Attention

Basiouny: Let’s talk about emotional language. I was surprised to find in your paper that you say when you use language that makes people feel uneasy or uncertain, it actually engages their attention a little bit more. Can you explain that, please?

Berger: Certainty is about how much people know about what’s going to happen next. If someone is really certain that it’s going to rain, for example, they have a strong sense that that’s going to occur. If they’re uncertain about whether it’s going to rain, though, there are less clear about whether that outcome will occur.

In some ways, certainty is good. Certainty can often be persuasive. If someone makes a recommendation, for example, and they seem really certain about what they’re talking about, other people are more likely to listen. After all, the person seemed so certain about what they were saying, so it just seems like it must be true.

But while certainty is good in some ways, it’s not so useful when trying to hold attention. Imagine watching a basketball game. Would you be more likely to keep watching the game if you already knew the final score or if you didn’t? If you don’t know the outcome of the game, you’re probably more interested in keeping watching to find out who wins. But if you already know who is going to win, you’re probably less interested in staying tuned.

And the same thing holds with language more generally. When we use a lot of certainty in our language, people feel like the puzzle is already solved, and they don’t need to keep reading. They don’t need to keep paying attention. Whereas if we use a little bit more uncertainty, people are more likely to go, “Wow, I don’t actually know how this is going to shake out.” It’s more like a mystery, or a curiosity gap, so people are more likely to keep consuming the content to figure out what happens.

Again, it depends on what our goals are. If we just want to get across a high-level idea, maybe we put it in the title or the first paragraph, and that’s it. But if we want people to keep consuming a number of ideas to get to the big punchline, we can’t give away that big punchline right away. Emotional language does that, not just certainty in general, but certain emotions are more certain than others.

Think about anger versus anxiety, for example. Both are negative. Neither feels good. Both feeling angry and feeling anxious are negative feelings, but when we feel angry, we usually know what we’re angry about. We’re angry about a very specific thing. “The airline canceled my flight, and I’m pissed off at them.” When we’re anxious, it’s a little bit more of a diffused state. We’re not always certain why we’re anxious. We have a feeling of anxiety, but we feel uncertain in part because we don’t know if something is going to happen. We’re anxious about whether our flight is going to be canceled, and that uncertainty leads you to pay attention to everything that’s going on. What announcement did the airline make? What is this flight attendant doing? We’re more likely to pay attention to resolve that uncertainty.

The same on the positive side: hope versus excitement. If you’re excited about something, you know what’s going to happen. If you’re hopeful, you want it to happen, but you’re not sure. Subtle differences in how we write content can be more likely to make people feel a little bit more uncertain and lead them to be more likely to pay attention.

Basiouny: Let’s talk about one more aspect of emotional language that you mention in the paper, and that is arousal. What do you mean by that?

Berger: Arousal basically means how fired up we are. I think a good way to think about this is to imagine you’re going for a walk in the woods, and you see a big snake sliding right across your path. Your pulse quickens, your heart beats faster. You are ready to take an action. That’s the idea of physiological arousal. We’re fired up. We’re ready to take an action. We’re ready to run. We’re ready to take an action to do something.

So, some emotions, like anger and anxiety or excitement or humor, are high arousal. Other emotions, things like contentment or sadness, are low arousal. We find that more emotions associated with arousal keep people consuming content, similar to the idea of uncertainty. They’re a little more vigilant. They’re paying attention to figure out what’s going on. And they’re more likely to take action, continuing to consume the content.

Why Good Writing Is Essential in the Attention Economy

Basiouny: There are a number of contributions that this paper makes, and one of them is illuminating the critical role that language plays in disinformation, hate speech, and other types of social issues. Can you touch on that a little bit?

Berger: Yes, sometimes we see things that are shared online, we see content that’s engaging, and we think it’s sort of random luck or chance. “Oh, I wish people wouldn’t share misinformation or hate speech” or things along those lines. But it’s not just about people, it’s about the way the content itself is designed. Certain content is written in a way that’s more engaging. Certain content is written in a way that’s more likely to be shared. Certain content is written in a way that makes us believe it, even when it’s not true. There’s really behavioral science behind these things, and the more we understand about why people share, what makes content more likely to hold attention — the more we understand these factors, the more we can design content and systems to decrease the chance that these things occur.

Basiouny: What is the main point that marketers, advertisers, and influencers need to know from this paper?

Berger: I think there’s a really simple but important takeaway here. As communicators, most of us think that holding attention is all about the topic we’re communicating and whether it’s interesting or not. Celebrity gossip and sports scores? Those should hold attention, but environmental news, tax policy, and climate change are just topics that no one is going to pay attention to. So if we’re writing about one of these things, we’re just out of luck. There’s nothing we can do.

But our findings show that holding attention isn’t just about whether the topic is interesting or not. It’s about the words we use to communicate that information.

Even controlling for the topic of the articles we analyzed, for example, how they’re written shapes whether or not they hold attention. Sure, certain things are naturally more likely to hold attention. Sports, technology, personal sorts of things are generally more likely to hold attention than world news.

But if they’re written the right way, anything can hold attention. The impact of writing style and how we write is just as big, if not bigger, than the topic. Writing the right way can increase sustained attention even for less engaging topics.

Get Jonah Berger’s latest research-based book on language titled, Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way.