Talking to the elephant

01 July 2014, at 1:00am

Chris Whipp continues his article on attention spans with a look at techniques that can be used to build, develop and control attention – but warns not to expect too much too soon.

LAST month we looked at how developing and managing the attention may be the next major business advantage of the 21st century as we come to terms with a new and challenging business environment.

We used the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis to represent the relatively small prefrontal cortex (PFC), the seat of conscious thought and control, and the non-conscious brain which is influenced by gut feelings, intuition, emotions and unconscious drives.

Influenced by our genes, our early upbringing, our education and our experience, the elephant is both large and strong and potentially out of control for more of the time than we might wish to admit.

Developing a better relationship between the two can increase efficiency, improve performance, give a greater sense of autonomy and get better results.

Paying attention is easier when we are internally motivated and harder when we are not. In an appropriate situation we may maintain almost effortless attention for extended periods of time, a state often called “flow”.

Forcing ourselves to maintain attention when not motivated is much more difficult but it is a skill that can be learned and developed.

Julie Dickson, in her book Talk to the Elephant, nicely summarises the roles and interplay of the two parts of the brain when she says: “The rider part of your brain is the rational, Mr Spock, control-your-impulses, plan-for-the- future brain. Your rider tells you all sorts of useful things that you know will provide long-term benefit: ‘If I exercise now, I’ll have more energy later.’ 

“The elephant, on the other hand, is your attracted-to-shiny-objects brain. It is your what-the-hell, go-with-what-feels-right part of the brain. It’s drawn to things that are novel, pleasurable, comfortable or familiar.”

Knowing that we can improve and control the dialogue is one thing, actually doing it is quite another and here we look at some techniques that can be used to build, develop and control attention. It should be remembered that working with our subconscious habits takes time and practice and it is important not to expect too much too soon.

It is also important to remember that cognitive resources of memory, focus and control are both nite and interrelated. As with management, you may be able to force the elephant to go where you want it to for a while but only so long.

This was nicely demonstrated by a simple study at the University of Minnesota in the late nineties. Two cohorts of participants were asked to memorise either a two-digit or a seven- digit number.

After time had elapsed they repeated the number back, then received a reward – either a fruit salad or a gooey chocolate cake. Interestingly, of the cohort with the greater memory task (seven numbers), twice as many chose the indulgent chocolate cake. We should endeavour not to overestimate our abilities.

Here are some techniques to keep the elephant interested and attentive:


The elephant is a creature that lives for now and quite happy leaving the responsibility for worrying about the future to the PFC. Focus therefore on the here and now when you want to get the attention and only focus forwards once both halves of the brain are engaged.

Show, don’t tell

It is perfectly possible to have an intelligent rational discussion with a client but compliance may still be pathetic. The elephant needs to see and feel the importance within the immediacy of the moment. Use visuals, action and dialogue to attract and keep attention.


Tell a good story, giving it good structure and direction. The human mind is wired for stories and they are central to our cultural memory. If the story is good, the attention will be retained until you get to the end. Providing the opportunity to participate in the story can enhance autonomy, bolster perseverance and motivation. Make the story both inciting and exciting.


We are, by nature, problem- solvers. By providing interesting dilemmas we can gain interest, draw attention and motivate individuals to find solutions.

The type of dilemma is critical. The mind is happy grappling with a problem and the key is directing it to a problem that will lead to a clear, positive result rather than just being fun to do or distracting.

It’s a little like time management where we might classify what we do into just two categories; “Doing something useful” v. “Passing the time until we die”.


Surprise can be a very effective way of both capturing the attention and building memories. There is lots of research into rewards and bonus schemes and there is no doubt that there is a greater activation of anticipation and rewards centres in the brain when the reward is unexpected.

Rewards are nice but when they become habitual their effect on attention and performance is limited. Keep things fresh and provide surprises to gain, maintain and regain attention.

Leave gaps

When working with staff and others, leave gaps in the information you give them. Humans inherently seek meaning and practice pattern recognition. Gaps can intrinsically motivate staff to try to ll them, thereby driving attention and concentration.

George Loewenstein (professor of economics and psychology) describes curiosity as: “Arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge.”

Create dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is that feeling that there is something not quite right about the way you see the world. As with gaps, it grabs the attention and holds it as you try to reconcile what you know with what you don’t.

Deliberately stepping outside of your comfort zone or moving other people outside of their comfort zone can be great for the attention but care is needed otherwise the more primitive areas of the brain (amygdala) can go into overload. This has the opposite effect, impairing cognition, attention and memory.

Visceral experience

In a world preoccupied with abstractions, the attention can be drawn by real, tangible messages with a significant emotional component. Many messages are focused on the intellectual processing of the PFC when talking to the elephant directly via the emotions and the subconscious can be far more effective.

If you can engage the attention of the elephant as well as the rider, it is possible to attract, apply and maintain the attention relatively effortlessly. If not, you can drive the elephant only a short distance or time before he rebels.

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