Ben Parr Wants Your Attention: Q&A With the Author of CaptivologyBen Parr
That was the only word in an email from Ben Parr, whom I had emailed a little over a day earlier about setting up a time to chat about Captivology, Parr’s new book about getting noticed in this era of overstimulation and distraction, on sale tomorrow. He was emailing to remind me of the message he had sent with proposed times for our call, to which I had yet to respond.
He had my attention.
Parr has devoted much of his career to grabbing eyeballs in various capacities, formerly as the co-editor of Mashable and now as cofounder of VC firm DominateFund. His author bio describes him as an “expert on attention.” But he’s careful to point out that Captivology is not a how-to for self-promoters.
“It’s not about capturing attention for just yourself,” said Parr, “it’s about capturing attention for the great ideas, the great art, the great projects that you have. Everybody has some passion more people should see or notice.”
Parr spoke to FORBES about everything from why technology isn’t totally to blame for our diminished attention spans to what’s to be gained from switching up your personal style.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: There’s been a fair amount written about how hard it is for people to focus nowadays, but not as much about how to command their attention. What prompted your idea for the book?
A: As an investor, I had a lot of entrepreneurs approaching me trying to get attention users, investors. Attention is a central component of the modern economy. It’s not just entrepreneurs. If you’re a teacher you need to get the attention of your students for a good lesson plan. Musicians want to reach fans, managers, agents, charities want to reach donors, brands want to reach consumers.
I wrote the book to be broad. I wanted it to be applicable across industries and across cultures. There’s obviously a business bent but I really wanted it to be useful and accessible to everybody.
Q: One thing I was struck by is how dense the tapestry is here—you combine anecdotes from personal experience, cultural references, and research. How did you find the correct balance?
A: I spent two years writing, researching, and editing, and only 10% of my interview material made it into the book. I went for as much info as I could, to find the really important key points and process it down to something you could fit in your backpack.
I wanted to write a book that had meat but was really engaging and didn’t feel too scientific.
Q: Many feel that it’s technology and the constant distractions it creates that has truly made it impossible for people to focus, and conversely for others to capture their attention. Do you agree with that theory, or does it go deeper than that?
A: The way in which we pay attention has not changed that much. When we were hunter-gatherers our attention was constantly shifting, but it was a survival method. Where’s the next threat, the next food source?
The environment is what’s changed. Now it’s YouTube videos and smart phone notifications—they’re the things that activate the dopamine loop.
I don’t think of [technology] as a fundamental threat or a problem per se. I think of it as how we as a species have had to adapt to a massive amount of information. I do think that is has changed us in some way. When you look at our ability to focus on specific tasks—it’s better to focus on one task rather than multitask, but this is the way the world is.
People had these same kinds of complaints when magazines came out. We’ve adapted and thrived just fine, it’s just another stage.
Q: If people could start doing just one thing from the book tomorrow what would it be?
A: The first thing is to violate people’s expectations. You want to have people turn their eyes up a little bit more. Wear something different. Pick up a new hobby. Surprise your friend with a gift or an idea. We’re attuned to surprises and we have a pleasant experience with positive surprises.
Anytime you can positively break attention, something small everyday and more creative—all the things you do become more attention-grabbing, more captivating.