Grabbing Attention… the Right Way.

The other day, my father came across a news article that he just had to bring to my attention. Not because of the contents of the article itself… but because of the headline:

Columbian Priests Hired Hitmen to Kill Themselves

Now, reading that, the logical assumption might be that the hitmen had been hired to kill … well, themselves. Which, admittedly, would be an interesting way of combating violent crime, but I can hardly picture very many hitmen considering it worth the money.

If you read the article, of course, you’ll see that the reality was rather different: it was the priests who decided to commit suicide-by-hitmen.

It reminded me, in a way, of something I saw while driving past a video rental store some time ago. They had placed this sign in the window:

As you can see, there were no other signs nearby, nothing to clarify their meaning. Since I was in the car and only had a cell phone camera I wasn’t able to get a good closeup at the time, but with a bit of searching I found a picture (from another store in the same chain) that shows the smaller words more clearly:

Free Kids at Hollywood Video

Yep. That’s it. The fine print simply says “See store for details” – twice. Are there free kids’ movies? Free movie rentals to children? Are they running some other sort of children’s program for which they don’t charge? That’s a whole lot of “detail” left out, leaving the passersby with only the information that … they are apparently giving away children at these stores. And here I was under the impression that that might be just a little bit, well, illegal, to say the least. One has to wonder whether this particular promotional is in any way responsible for the fact that the store went out of business shortly thereafter.

In both these cases, the initial goal was achieved, in a way: the words did grab attention. The problem is, they did so in a way that was very misleading.

There are lots of ways that that can happen in writing. Sometimes we’re just not thinking things through, or stopping to consider how our words will come across to others. (Either through laziness, or simply because we know what we meant, and it doesn’t occur to us that that might not be what our words actually said.) Other times the misleading element is intentional, designed to startle readers into paying closer attention.

Now, that latter approach can be effective, especially when paired with a humorous approach to a subject. Sometimes it can be just the thing to make a title stand out to potential readers and arouse their curiosity.

It does, however, require a bit of caution in your approach. An unexpected title or first line may catch a reader’s attention, but you still need to keep it. If you fail in that task, the reader will be disappointed – and may even resent the bait-and-switch approach, feeling that you’ve tricked them into thinking this was going to be more interesting than it really was.

Whatever the subject or tone, it’s important to pay attention, and consider your reader’s perspective as well as your own intent.  Take time to re-read what you’ve written, and ask yourself: Am I actually saying what I think I’m saying?

4 Responses to “Grabbing Attention… the Right Way.”

  1. Robert Hartley Says:

    Excellent observation! Between clever advertising and grab ‘em-at-all-costs gimmickry is a very fine line. I am an opportunist, shamelessly promotional, and so am warned by my better nature to exercise restraint. Still, though, at heart I am pure artist, and if the approach or the gimmickry comes together artistically, in an entertaining way, I will pursue an advantage. I fancy that my audience would expect nothing less. Never am I deliberately misleading in my story telling or in calling attention to it. And we are gonna call attention to it.

  2. Emily Sather Says:

    I think recognition that that balance is necessary is really key. Being promotionally-minded is not a bad thing! At the heart of the issue, I think, is the consideration that your readers are giving you one of the most valuable things they possess – their time. To be good – responsible, successful – writers, we need to give them value for that time. What form that value may take may vary, depending on the purpose of the writing. But whatever the goal (whether to change minds, promote products, encourage, or simply entertain), if they leave feeling that their time has been wasted… then we haven’t succeeded. But if it’s well done, and I feel I’m getting something out of it – even if it’s just a good laugh! – I know I can not only tolerate, but actually enjoy reading that kind of promotion!

  3. Veronika Walker Says:

    Oh, sigh…. Quality is just not something you can produce on a whim and without a second (or third or eighteenth) look.

    Good to see you back around the Internet-sphere, Emily. I’m retweeting you. :)

  4. Emily Sather Says:

    Exactly so. I’m really amazed at the number of people who don’t seem to think it’s necessary to give anything they write a second looking over. I think there’s a real sense that if you do things right the first time, you shouldn’t have to fix it… but the truth is, writing just doesn’t work that way!

    And thanks for the retweet! <3

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