How to Secure and Hold Attention

If you want anyone to do something he is not now doing, you must enlist the will on the side of right as you see it.

H.B. Lunduist is retired professor Collegedale, Tennessee

It is the work of persuasion to change men's minds, make them think as you do. A salesman has been defined as one who gets you to buy something you don't want, and many times do not even need. In order to persuade, the speaker is oft-times obliged to make use of all five of the general ends of speech—clearness, belief, conviction, action, and even entertainment.

The Bible gives us a definite clue on how to persuade in the little statement, ". . . out of it [the heart] are the issues of life." Or, to paraphrase, unless you take hold of and appeal to the emotions, you will fail. Add to this the part played by the will, and certainly we cannot fail to see the importance of studying the laws of persuasion. If you want anyone to do something he is not now doing, you must enlist the will on the side of right as you see it.

Attention or Chaos

This discussion will be limited to the first step—attention. As to the importance of securing the attention, William James says: "Only those items which I notice shape my mind. The absence of attention in other words is chaos." Attention has been defined as the selective action of consciousness. And eminent psychologists tell us that if the attention can be kept on one thing to the exclusion of all others, action will take place along that line.

Permit me to illustrate this selective ac­tion of the will. When a prospective cus­tomer visits a restaurant, three things may happen to him: He may go away hungry because of inaction caused by the failure to select. He may go away stuffed with wrong combinations or with wrong food. And, last, he may go away satisfied. Even in so trivial a thing as buying a meal, it is highly important to employ the selective action of the will. By applying this same principle to social life, one may go through life solitary and unsatisfied, or with rela­tionships that produce only unhappiness. On the other hand, he may go through life with true, satisfying companions. And, surely, in the educational field one must select wisely or he will become cynical, boorish, or bookish.

Involuntary Attention

Let us consider attention under four heads: First of all, compulsory, or invol­untary attention, as when consciousness is awakened by a loud noise, a gnawing pain, or a great surprise. Applied to evan­gelistic advertising, one would advertise such a subject as "World Dictator Com­ing," or "China and Armageddon." Even a physicist knows why this kind of attention is undesirable, for he knows that for every action there is a corresponding reac­tion. Honest Abe once voiced another and stronger reason. He said, "Don't pretend what you need not, lest you be called upon to prove what you cannot." This sort of advertising may secure attention, but if it does not hold it, or if the product does not come up to the advertising, there may result a revulsion of inverse proportion. This is undesirable because it calls atten­tion to the man and the method rather than to the message.

Voluntary Attention

Next, let us consider voluntary atten­tion. This is secured often by begging for it. Don't say, "If the people will listen, I will preach." But, rather, say, "If I preach well, the people will listen." A definite warning should be considered in connec­tion with this kind of attention: There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time. What is called sustained, voluntary attention is a repetition of successive ef­forts that bring back the topic to the mind.

Intellectual Attention

The third kind of attention is passive intellectual attention. It is related that the famous mathematician Archimedes was so intent in the pursuit of his science that he did not become aware of a Roman inva­sion of his fatherland until just before he was killed by the invading hordes. During my school days, a curious incident oc­curred that illustrates this class of attention. The fire gong sounded, and class­rooms and chapel and dormitories were soon emptied, and the fire was averted. Upon the resumption of the normal ac­tivities of the college, a student was found sitting in the chapel totally oblivious to anything that had taken place. He had been studying! Usually those practicing this kind of attention come under one of two heads—geniuses or pathological cases.

Spontaneous Attention

We now come to the fourth class, namely, the spontaneous. When the speaker has secured this kind of attention, he, with Admiral Dewey's aide, may begin firing! And those who know their history, know that when Dewey's task force began operations, the enemy's ships began to slip beneath the waters of Manila Bay until the entire fleet had disappeared. Sponta­neous attention has been defined as the concentration of consciousness upon some­thing that momentarily dominates the mind. The psychologist Gardner tells us how to secure this highly desirable kind of attention: "Stimulate some inclination not opposed to the message so effectively that it will overflow the consciousness with the corresponding feelings, and submerge the opposing inclinations." In other words, pass from the known and the loved to the unknown and the unloved.

I shall offer three rules to follow in order to secure it. First, say something at once. Don't kill any time with banalities or trivia. Get right down to the subject. Sec­ond, talk from three to five minutes in concrete, nonabstract language. Avoid logic or philosophy. Exclude flights of ora­tory or panegyric. Third, stimulate in your audience curiosity or the spirit of inquiry. This may be done by a series of thought-provoking questions or propositions.

Arouse Expectation and Desire

However important it may be to secure attention, unless it is held, it will be of lit­tle avail. The first rule on how to hold attention is, arouse expectation and desire. Humanity is hungry for something that will satisfy. We are to point the audience to the pot of gold at the end of the rain­bow, with this little difference—to a real one rather than to an illusory one! The presentation of the speaker lures the hearer on and on. The perspective situa­tion arouses the mind to positive activity, and the interest passes beyond the hearer's control. He is in the speaker's hands.


The second law is, simply, variation. Variation has been dubbed the spice of life, the life of business. But its use is based on a sound, psychological law, namely, the tendency of the mind to leap from one thing to another. If an attempt is made to pin it down to one thing, it tends to sink into drowsy extinction. Vary the manner of presentation. Introduce fre­quently short illustrations. Address ques­tions to the audience.

The third law is movement. The dis­course must have movement. Different phases of the subject should be presented with a rapidity corresponding to the ra­pidity of normal mental movement. And let the movement of the discourse be ac­companied by physical movement as well. The younger the speaker, the more diffi­cult the subject, the more he should avoid standing like a stone statue. Use the pulpit as a flight deck. Take off, and come back to fill the bomb bays with ammunition, and take off again. Don't come to rest be­hind it until the close of the discourse.

Thirty Militates or Break It!

The last rule will be rather precaution­ary. Inasmuch as the absolute limit of mod­ern, psychological endurance is thirty minutes, don't go beyond that time. If you have to, or think you have to, then break the discourse into two parts by introducing something relaxing or diverting in the middle of it. Remember that no concert runs an hour without a break, no play is given in a single one-hour act, no sport's contest is given in one inning or period. Let us strive to be as wise as the children of this world, and perhaps our audience will stay with us longer!

Public speakers, let our aim be to be a wing commander of a mighty, individu­ally powered and directed aerial armada, rather than a modern Caesar dragging un­willing captives chained to our chariot wheel.

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H.B. Lunduist is retired professor Collegedale, Tennessee

February 1968

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