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Attention, please: Former Mashable editor turned VC Ben Parr on the science of what grabs us

Ben Parr

At any given moment, masses of people are fixated on something, with the latest obsession being “Game of Thrones,” Season 5, which as we’ve been breathlessly told over and over this week starts Sunday night on HBO.

Did you ever wonder how stuff like that captures the attention of so many? So hasBenn Parr, a former co-editor and editor-at-large of Mashable and currently the cofounder of DominateFund. He gets into the science behind what we pay attention to and what we tune out in a book titledCaptivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention(HarperOne, March 2015).

In it, he looks at how to get people’s attention initially, how to engage them for the short term, and how to create long-term attention, as someone like Beyoncé— who commands attention just for being herself— has done.

While it might seem most applicable to marketers and media types, Parr told usCaptivology’s lessons could apply just as well to recruiters or even moms and dads.

“I purposefully wrote the book broadly so it would apply not just to entrepreneurs, but to teachers who want the attention of their students, managers, bands, agents, and even parents who want to get their attention of their kids,” Parr said in a phone interview from San Francisco, where he’s based.

Parr acknowledges that Millennials (to say nothing of the Gen Z generation that follows), are particularly tough to reach given that they’ve grown up with technology and all the multitasking that goes with it.

“You have to think about the frame of reference that these Millennials have. You have to think ‘Where is this audience?’ and ‘What captures their attention?’ They’re not watching television, they’re not reading newspapers. They’re getting news from Twitter, Snapchat, or Shots,” he said. Similarly, texting has displaced voicemails for Millennials. They’re cynical about advertising pitches, but interested in getting information about products that they really want.

“Find a way of violating their expectations,” he says. The way to do that is through disruption, doing something that makes you stand out from the rest of the market.

One example of doing so to hire talent was demonstrated by Los Angeles-based startup Scopely a few years ago. It riffed off the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads by running an ad seeking the “most interesting engineer in the world” and offering $11,000 wrapped in bacon, an oil portrait of the new employee, and a year’s supply of Dos Equis, among other perks.

When it comes to e-commerce and drawing people’s attention, Parr’s research turned up some interesting data involving color.

“Think about contrast or association,” Parr says. For example, Amazon’s buy buttons are orange and yellow against white, making them stand out and command action.

This applies to your startup logo, too. One tip: avoid yellow.

“Yellow has a very low correlation with competence, and blue has a high correlation,” Parr says. “And so [as a startup] consider ‘What does your logo or your deck stand for?’ and use the appropriate color schemes to emphasize that.”

A study he cited in his book suggests for instance that black, purple and pink suggest sophistication, brown exudes ruggedness, and red, orange or black create excitement. Like blue, the color red also signifies competence.

Parr, who cofounded the early-stage venture capital firm DominateFund in 2012, says he finds a lot of the skill sets between journalists and VCs are similar. “A journalist also has to analyze thousands of companies, meet lots of people and build a network,” he said.

For DominateFund, he and his cofounders have a 13-point due diligence list that they examine when weighing startups seeking funding.

“We’re looking for founders that scale, not just great personalities, people who want to remain as the founders and CEOs,” he said. And if you pitch him, you have to keep it brief. Forgo the business plan (“in my opinion, very outdated,” he said) and focus on your pitch deck instead. And in written communications, aim to get his attention in one paragraph.

In other words Captivology may be a 221-page book, but his author is very much one of the short-attention span people he writes of.

“I got an email the other day from a founder, a Facebook message that was 23 paragraphs long,” Parr said. “Do you think I have time to look at 23 paragraphs?”

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