Debunking the Goldfish myth

Why do people tell us that on social media we can't pay attention for longer than a few seconds? Isn't that shifting the blame?

I am sure you've been told that you have eight seconds to capture your audience's attention and that the attention span for online reading has and is dramatically declining.

The interesting aspect is that you hear that people are "not able" to pay attention online.

I don't believe that it's true and I agree with Kindra Hall who states in her book "Stories That Stick" that by saying that our readers cannot pay attention, we are shifting the blame from us to our audience.

Many believe that the reader has a defective attention span and we have to accommodate that fact and write in a way that is designed for short attention spans.

What we are not considering is that it is us - the writers - who have to write in a way that our readers want to pay attention.

Attention is voluntarily given, and only when we trade value for attention, then we deserve our readers' attention. We need to write in a way that makes this exchange worthwhile.

In my opinion, it's the quality of the post that is the biggest reason for people only scanning or scrolling.

It's because the majority of the content on social media is just so poor that it is not worth your readers' attention!


If you want, you can pay attention for a long time. Time goes by very quickly when you're playing a video game, watching a movie or reading a good book.

There's nothing wrong with your attention span but everything wrong with how to get and keep attention (or your audience's attention for that matter).

In order to get your audience to read your content to the end you must:

  • get their attention
  • keep their attention
  • leave an impact

    As content creators, we have the responsibility to create content that is worth reading. We need to earn our readers' attention!

    And I say it again - they give their attention quite freely, but they also withdraw it if they are not getting anything out of it.


    We pay attention to things that matter to us. If you have small children, then you pay attention because you don't want them to electrocute themselves, fall off the apple tree, or run onto the road.

    You pay attention ALL DAY because it's important to you, in fact, it's a matter of life and death. Humans have the ability to pay attention for a long time!

    When you don't pay attention, something bad can happen.

    You pay attention when you watch a movie (if it's a good one) because the process of watching gives you pleasure. (On the side: stories have the power to release hormones in your body the same way as if you were part of the story you are listening to or movie you are watching. Stories can release oxytocin to feel sympathy and connection or dopamine that helps you focus and memorise...)

    And then there's our innate desire for belonging and being part of something, that makes us pay attention. Many marketers use this desire when creating FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and create scenarios where we fear that we are not included and have to suffer negative consequences. 

    Insurances, pension funds or investment schemes are often good for painting dark pictures of your future in case you miss out on giving them your money.

    There are also some friendlier ways of using FOMO:

    • Closing a cart at a set time
    • An offer is only up for a certain time
    • There's a restricted number of seats available

      You are paying attention because you want to belong to a community of "winners" (in the past human survival depended on belonging to a tribe. It ensured your need for shelter, safety and food at its very basic level). 

      You can't help but be triggered by FOMO because you want to belong and avoid potential negative results if you don't take action.


      Especially in animal training, you can get great (and lasting) results when you're training positively and punishment free.

      Humans are the same - just like dogs that perform a behaviour because they know that they get a reward. We pay attention when we expect something positive to happen.

      You pay attention when someone tells you that you can make $50k/month (because right now you are struggling to make $5k/month and can just pay your most pressing bills).

      You pay attention when someone tells you about a new cure to relieve the chronic pain you are suffering from...

      Our brains are pleasure seekers and they are looking for pleasure, or they try to avoid pain or punishment. That's why we pay attention - to anything that is able to cause us either pain or great pleasure.


      Stanford University conducted an interesting experiment. The offered a child the choice between getting one small but immediate reward (a sweetie of some sort), or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time.

      Interestingly enough, children who waited for delayed gratification tended to have better life outcomes.

      But that's not what I wanted to get at. What matters here is that we have the capacity to be motivated by delayed gratification.

      When we are reading a book or watching a movie, the gratification is instant because we are enjoying the process.

      However, when we buy a course or sign up for a coaching programme, we are buying into a delayed gratification scheme. You'll reap the fruits of your efforts only after you've completed the programme and spent some time implementing what you've learned.

      BUT you bought the programme because you could paint the future outcomes of this programme in very lively colours before you started it.

      You paid attention to the copy and content because you can imagine the outcomes.


      What you need to do is truly a combination of a few things to keep people engaged.

      • You need to catch attention with something that matters to your readers
      • You need to keep their attention by trading their attention for value
      • You need to make the process of reading enjoyable
      • You can work with delayed gratification by providing value or knowledge, entertainment or insights that will give them positive outcomes AFTER they've finished reading

        People get excited about the delayed gratification that they can experience after the completion of a programme - you need to be able to kick-start your audience's imagination and enable them to paint very vivid (and attainable) pictures of their future after working with you.

        That means, your copy needs to be strong enough to evoke emotions and images of the future that we promise for the time after they've worked with you.

        So, stop blaming your audience for not paying attention!

        It's in your hands to make them - by writing content that rewards our readers.

        Categories: Copywriting, Contentwriting, Focus

        Add your email to subscribe and get my FREE online training "Writing Content for Engagement"