If we do not grab the attention of others immediately, we could lose them forever.
There is no doubt that technology has made our lives easier, but it has also made our lives harder in invisible ways. Technology-induced change has created an explosion of content and choice—a deluge of products, services, and voices in constant competition for our attention. In our always-on, internet-connected world, wave after wave of information bombards our senses and dilutes our individual voices. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we’re drowning in a sea of white noise.
As noise around us grows into a never-ending thrum, it reduces our ability to hear one another. Artists struggle to grow their audiences. Writers fail to retain readers’ concentration. Advertisers’ work fails to generate sales. Innovators can’t get support for their ideas. Businesses have a harder time attracting new customers. We’re trying to stand out but because of the digital onslaught, people are so overwhelmed they are only partially paying attention.
Being noticed is the first step to success. Being remembered is the next. But those two factors have become nearly impossible to control. How can you guarantee that anyone will look at what you’re doing in a sea of other options? How can you be sure you’ll stick in their minds?
The reason we pay attention and remember something is based in our innate perceptions and a set of unchanging primal laws called Blocks. Blocks are the simple mechanism underlying what makes anything iconic. In some form or another, Blocks have always existed in the world. A Block is the primal elementary form, sound or phrase that, once repeated, makes anything iconic, able to break through and stick in any onlooker’s mind. Through instant recognizability and repetition, a Block becomes an Icon in the mind.
The beginnings of the idea underlying Blocks took root in my mind while I was studying the work of legendary architect Louis Kahn, the subject of a 2003 Academy Award–nominated documentary. As I sat in a tiny independent film theater, something about the unforgettable, bold, monolithic nature of his work triggered a memory of a Billy Joel interview I had read as a years earlier. Joel was asked why he was able to write so many hits. Joel said that he was more interested in what made music last than what made it beautiful, fun, or artistic. He said in his youth he worked hard to be more of a musicologist than a musician. Most of all he wanted to know why Beethoven’s Fifth (you know, dun–dun–dadun!) had remained relevant for over two centuries. I had spent almost fifteen years pondering this question.
So, as I sat learning about the work of a very different creator, I started wondering if there was a connection between Kahn’s monolithic structures and Joel’s repetitive melodies. It was as though a spark went off.
With my background in economic history, I set out to see if there were in fact patterns of iconic communication. Was there an economics of attention? What makes some things imprint in the mind while other things are repelled? What causes any business, science, art, idea, or message to stand out and become iconic?
What makes some things imprint in the mind while other things are repelled? What causes any business, science, art, idea, or message to stand out and become iconic? How would this function at a time when it has become damn near impossible to be seen among such an overwhelming amount of messaging, products, and services in the world? What I found turned my head around, having implications far beyond music and buildings.
I spent the next decade testing and trying to consolidate and codify a set of rules for what I found. In the end, they were actually very simple. So simple that even though examples exist everywhere, and all around us, we don’t often notice them. I consulted some of the leading tech innovators, social change agents, CEOs, trailblazing engineers, designers, artists, and rock stars in the world about what causes something to stand out and take hold in the mind.
It turns out the principles work across any medium—from music, visual art, design, public speaking, even drafting an email, résumé, or dating profile. Anyone can use the principles of human perception to get attention for the things they care about. These principles—I think of them as timeless primordial laws—are the foundation of my work with businesses and individuals today.
Now, there have been many books written on the subject of why something stands out, sticks and endures; however, many of them fall short because they are trying to grasp a very simple mechanism but end up over complicating it. They don’t clearly articulate the primordial rules of why people pay attention, and in turn, that makes it hard for you to use the actual rules that do exist.