Four Keys to Gaining Attention for Brand Stories

The most memorable stories are provocative, credible, suspenseful and rewarding.

How do you get a target audience to both notice your brand signature stories and consume them? Without attention, the content does not matter.

I researched this question for my upcoming book on signature stories, and came across a helpful book by Ben Parr entitled “Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention.” Parr used academic research and case studies (by people and firms that have successfully achieved high visibility) to establish seven triggers of attention (or captivation, in his words): automaticity, framing, disruption, reward, reputation, mystery and acknowledgment. Based, in part, on his discussion of these triggers and their variants, I arrived at four keys to capturing and keeping attention to a brand’s signature stories.

The first two keys are relevant to the challenge of getting immediate or short-term attention.

  1. Have a trusted story source.

A trusted storyteller can come in the form of a friend or respected expert who passed along a video with a strong recommendation – “you have to see this.” Or a familiar personality, such as Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame or Tom Dickson host of the “Will it Blend?” challenges for Blendtec blender. Recognizable subjects are also trusted sources, like the Budweiser Clydesdales that have for years delivered a satisfying, emotional experience.

  1. Send an immediate signal that the story is novel, provocative, out of the ordinary.

There must be a reason why a person will notice and process the story. It could portend an unusual character, plot or even presentation; and promise to be intriguing. It is the judgment of the audience that matters. Just because a firm executive thinks the story is intriguing does not mean a target audience will too.

The next two keys to gaining attention are around keeping the audience’s attention. To maintain interest, YouTube research has found that the first 15 seconds are crucial to getting a viewer to stay with a video. How do you keep the audience involved past the initial exposure?

Consider the following first sentence of this introduction to the McElroy “brand man” story, “It was a drab and rainy day in mid-May 1931 when 28-year-old Neil McElroy, the advertising manager for P&G’s Camay soap, sat down at his Royal typewriter and wrote perhaps the most significant memo in modern marketing history.” Doesn’t that perk up your ears.

  1. Create uncertainty and suspense.

The McElroy story does this. Why the memo? Why was it important? The detail gives you a visual image of McElroy at the typewriter and gets you thinking, “who is this guy?”  It gets your attention, keeps it, and promises real rewards.

What will happen as a result of the memo? Uncertainty is not enough, it needs to be resolved and, importantly, it has to matter to the audience. Making the audience feel emotionally invested in the characters and plot will make the audience care about the outcome. The way the plot and presentation is structured also matters. It is best if the process of the story builds and leverages the suspense and its resolution.

  1. During the first 15 seconds create the expectation that the audience member will be rewarded by continuing to hear the story.

There will be rewards for being thought-provoking, interesting, informative, newsworthy, exceptionally relevant, entertaining or by reaffirming an opinion or a lifestyle choice of the audience. There needs to be more than a hint or expectation, there should be a basis for believing that there is a reason to stay involved with the story. At this point, phony, contrived, salesy or boring impressions should not be emerging.

“Without attention, the content does not matter.”

Immediate or short-term attention is the first barrier a story needs to overcome. Using reputable storytellers gives your stories merit because there is an established expectation that the story will be worthwhile. This is similar to current trends toward targeting social media influencers – these influencers are trusted among certain audiences because they have established credibility on particular subjects.


Without a reputable storyteller, there’s no luxury of a slow, plodding start. The first few seconds or sentences of your brand’s story are critical. If those seconds pass without capturing your audience, the next ten to fifteen seconds are your last shot to have your story’s content processed.

These brand stories get your attention right away, and keep your attention throughout (for some reason shoe brands have excelled at this):