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How to Grab and Keep Your Audience in the Attention Economy

From closing the deal to firing up your team, make your message stick with SHARPs

Want to know your real competition when you’re speaking, whether to an individual or group? You’re up against the human mind. Weighing in at just three pounds, this competitor is the repository of countless conscious and unconscious thoughts.

We are all bombarded with data at every turn. Our smartphones (and the constant content they provide) call to us like sirens, ready to distract us under the guise of multi-tasking.

This is the attention economy. And it’s the new reality.

The average attention span for an adult is a measly 8 seconds (we’re only 2 seconds better than our kids). This doesn’t mean that you can only hold someone’s attention for 8 seconds; it means that you can lose it in 8 seconds.1

With this reality, we face an even greater challenge every time we communicate an idea, a request or an action item. How do we connect? How do we get through all that other clutter caused by the attention economy? How can we be more compelling than the smartphone?

It’s time for a new communication currency, one that will pack a punch and enable your message to stand out from all those other distractions.

We call this new currency SHARPs, an acronym that stands for:

  • Stories
  • Humor
  • Analogies
  • References
  • Pictures and visuals

If you want to drive action—close the deal, secure your budget, fire up your team—you need to appeal to people’s emotions, which is exactly what SHARPs do.

Why? People crave emotional experiences. Logic makes us think, but a well-told story, analogy or photo can make us feel—and emotions prompt us to act.

You don’t necessarily need to include all five SHARPs in every conversation, presentation or communication. But SHARPs are essential to creating an emotional connection between you and your listener.

We coach clients to begin and end every communication experience with a SHARP—and to use them throughout the body of their message, as well. Here’s a quick overview of each SHARP and tips for how and when to use them for maximum impact.


Stories can come from anywhere, but some of the most powerful stories are those that come from our personal experiences. It shows our most authentic, genuine self and helps us build a connection with our listeners.

The best stories are short, keep moving and have a payoff at the end. Keep in mind that stories should be proportional to your total delivery time. Often we lose ourselves in a favorite story but fail to connect it to our big idea or call-to-action.

To help keep your stories on track, share only the details and descriptions that matter most. These are the ones that help listeners create a mental image in their minds and help your message persist over time. So often, people tell a story and get hung up on a detail that doesn’t really matter. For example, “I went to the doctor on Thursday… wait, it was Tuesday. No, it was Wednesday. Yup, it was Wednesday.” Ask yourself: Does this detail really matter? Does it propel the narrative forward?

Try keeping a story journal. By recording the stories that are shaping your life, you’ll quickly amass a treasure trove of content to tap into when you need it.


One of the best ways to get your listeners on your side is to get them laughing. Why do people laugh? Often, it’s when we discover a truth that has been expressed in an incongruous, ludicrous, absurd or exaggerated form.

The key to humor is to take your topic seriously but take yourself lightly. Self-deprecation makes you appear humble, good-natured and likeable. Steer clear of making another person the object of your humor; it’s risky and can come off as an attack. Always use common sense to keep humor culturally appropriate, within the boundaries of good taste and politically correct. If your humor misfires, it destroys the communication experience, breaks the emotional connection, embarrasses you and leaves the audience feeling uncomfortable.

And hey, if humor is not your thing, that’s okay. The most important thing is to use SHARPs that fit your content and your style.


Analogies are comparisons that use familiar examples to explain ideas and concepts that are less easily understood. Cognitive researcher Douglas R. Hofstadter goes so far as to say that “analogy is the core of cognition.” Cognition is our human ability to process information, solve problems and make decisions, and it has a lot to do with our abilities to grasp analogies—our ability to recognize familiar patterns in unfamiliar concepts. The ability to understand analogies enables us to sort ideas and information into categories so that we can better understand reality.

Analogies take a familiar starting point for your listeners, then use it to help them build on this understanding to bridge to a new concept. Analogies help listeners get from Point A to Point B in the most direct, efficient route possible (and that’s an analogy).

I’ve heard that when the movie Titanic was pitched, they used an analogy, too:  “It’s Romeo and Juliet on a boat.”


The easiest of all the SHARPs is adding a reference or quote. Especially if you’re struggling with getting people to take your recommendation seriously, a third-party reference and/or quotation strengthens the credibility of your message.

Quotes don’t need to come from the usual suspects like Shakespeare or Socrates. Choose a reference or quote from someone your listeners respect and admire, like your company CEO or even your competition. Share the wisdom of a customer, a colleague or even your kids to inspire your audience with the unexpected.


In the attention economy, we need to fight fire with fire. Pictures and visuals are the ammo you need to help your story come to life. Consider using video clips, props, even physical activity like juggling, dance or stage magic.

And yes, it might surprise you to learn that the dreaded PowerPoint slide can be transformed into a powerful visual aid. Remember the Three Bs:

  • Make them big so they can be seen from a distance.
  • Make them bold so that they can be grasped at a glance.
  • Keep them basic so that they don’t distract from your presentation.

Ditch the dinky, low-res thumbnail in the bottom corner and go full screen with a powerful image that drives your point home. Use easy-to-read type over the image in a contrasting color, as needed.


Here’s a simple way to start using SHARPs in your everyday life. The next time you meet someone, use a SHARP to explain who you are and what you do. Think about ways you can share vulnerability or humor. Not only will you more easily connect with people but they’ll remember you—the real you.


You can weave SHARPs throughout your whole message to keep people engaged in the whole time – not only at the beginning or the end. Through the narrative of a meeting or talk, you can have 4 different SHARPs to help your audience connect with your key points and ideas. Take the tough concept and pull through an analogy. Tell the why behind it – and make general ideas more specific.

Not only will you grab and keep your audience, but you’ll also be more memorable when you connect with SHARPs.


1Dianne Dukette and David Cornish, The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team (Pittsburgh, PA; RoseDog Books, 2009), pp. 72-73.

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About Kelly Decker

Kelly Decker is a keynote speaker, messaging expert and executive communication coach, and co-author of COMMUNICATE TO INFLUENCE: How To Inspire Your Audience To Action.