MADE YOU LOOK - Impossible to Ignore - Carmen Simon

Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)

Chapter 4. MADE YOU LOOK

How Cues Pave the Way to Action

Igrew up in Communist Romania in the 1980s, a time and place of scarcity. One of the costs of communism was waiting in extremely long lines for just about anything: pencils, batteries, socks, or pork chops. My mom was firm with me: “You want chocolate? Queue up. See you in four hours.” The most exasperating part of waiting in line was not knowing whether there would be enough for everyone. Sometimes store clerks would be considerate and announce early on, “We probably have enough meat for 30 people.” To make the cut even more precise, they might say, “We will serve up to … the tall gentleman with the hat.”

I remember a violently windy afternoon when a truck pulled up behind the corner grocery store, and someone screamed, “They got bananas.” I love bananas; they were usually a biannual treat, so getting them deserved effort. I sprinted to our apartment, took money out of a drawer reserved precisely for these events, and put on my bright-red windbreaker, a hand-me-down from an older friend. Three sizes too large, but on those occasions, there was no time to fuss over fashion. I promptly lined up. I had been in line for about three hours, anticipating my mom’s approval when I would showcase the eight bananas, a typical family ration. Four hours into the wait, I started to get antsy, picturing the bananas running out, the last ones going to someone in front of me. The line was still holding strong when the clerk came out, looked over us, and declared, “We will serve up to …” Usually, in those moments, I knew the battle was lost. I was just a kid, buried between large adults. No way I would get picked. And just out of nowhere, he said, “… up to … the girl with the big red jacket.” I felt as if I had just been selected for the Romanian gymnastics team. My posture changed. I felt tall and important. I also felt guilty because the person right behind me was bigger, older … much more “banana-worthy.” But most of all, I felt gratitude for my bright-red jacket that cued his attention and action at the right time.

Cues are important because they are reminders of what to do next. In an earlier chapter, we discussed how noticing cues is critical to the process of acting on intentions. The clerk had been training himself for many years to look for cues that stand out and help him make a decision easily so he could finish his work. Bright colors were likely associated in his mind with “I am going home soon.”

Most people don’t sit around and wait for cues. This means the cues we create at Point A and aim to be noticeable at Point B must be distinctive enough to attract attention and prompt a specific memory, even when people are busy doing something else. If there is one thing that neuroscientists agree on, it is that cues are signals to act, and we know that people act on three things: reflexes, habits, and/or goals. So let’s learn how to build cues mapped to the same three decision factors, keeping in mind that, regardless of the cue type, the brain is in a constant search for rewards.

When the cues you use to attract attention at Point A are similar to what people encounter later at Point B, they are more likely to signal action. For example, let’s say that a husband and wife must lower their cholesterol and have to take pills (a new routine). At home, they can remember to do that if they tie an old routine—drinking coffee—to the new routine of taking pills. Setting the pills by the coffeemaker helps them to act on their intention. This process is in danger when they go on vacation and the coffee drinking does not happen in the same location. Suddenly a routine that served as a cue is no longer in its place, so it’s easy to forget to take the pills.


Constantly ask at Point A: Am I showing my audiences a cue that attracts attention in a similar way to what they will see on their own? It would make no sense if Colgate toothpaste used one color palette in a TV ad and a different color palette on the shelf at the decision point.


The physical properties of various stimuli have the power to attract our attention to a cue, almost “despite ourselves.” A bright-red jacket, a loud sound, or the unexpected touch of a lover’s cold feet will get our attention in a reflexive, automatic, effortless way. This happens because humans have an outstanding vigilance system, which constantly scouts the environment through an attentional filter and zooms in on what’s important for survival. This attentional filter is at work all the time, even when we sleep. Consequently, physical properties that suddenly alter our environment, such as unusual or bright colors, textures, size, motion, loud sounds, harmony, or orientation of objects, force us to look. This is one way we become impossible to ignore.


In the pictures that follow, you can be certain where your viewers’ eyes are going because of the use of physical properties such as color and size. Viewers can’t help but look at a specific area first. And if we are certain where they are looking, we can be more certain that something may happen next, such as retrieving memories and executing on an intention.

Physical properties of stimuli are automatic attention triggers, especially when people are in a rush and attention is scarce. In 2003, in an effort to get people’s attention and remind them not to smoke, advertising agency Clarity Coverdale Fury created a cigarette butt the size of Paul Bunyan. The structure measured approximately 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall and 5 feet (1.5 meters) across at the base. To make it even more attention-grabbing, a heavy billboard was placed on top of it, so it looked as if the billboard were crushing the butt into a black and equally giant ashtray. The installation was displayed in Minneapolis, and it reminded people driving back and forth to casinos to quit smoking. Due to its giant size and strong message, the artifact was hard to miss, even at 70 mph.




Attracting attention with automatic cues works because it shifts the burden of thinking to the outside world. Attention and memory processes can easily become distracted or confounded by similar items. We can learn from what cognitive psychologists call Gibsonian affordances, after American psychologist J. J. Gibson. A Gibsonian affordance describes an object whose design features give us cues about how to use it. Affordances indicate the potential for action.

When you approach a door, do you know whether it will open in or out? When subjects in an experiment were asked, “Does your bedroom door open in to the bedroom or out into the hall?” most could not remember. That’s because features of the door encode this information for us, so we don’t have to think about it. When we drive a modern car, even if we’re used to keys, we quickly know to push the start button. Looking at the handle on a drawer, we know how to pull it to open it. When using an oven, we immediately know how to turn a knob to increase the temperature. When we create affordances, we reduce the burden on our audience’s conscious brain.

Gibsonian affordances apply to business content creation too. For example, a few years ago, I remember helping Phil Fernandez, CEO of Marketo, create a presentation about his book, Revenue Disruption. Out of 45 slides, 14 had key words whose size was 30% bigger than the text in the rest of the presentation. These were words related to several problems marketers were facing (e.g., “limited choices,” “Mars versus Venus”—to describe the marketing versus sales dynamic, “five stages of grief”), and solutions (e.g., “create revenue,” “enormous opportunity,” “revenue performance management”). Marketers would encounter many of these physical stimuli later on during their daily tasks, long after the delivery of the presentation. When reinforced through subsequent e-mail reminders, a white paper, and a webinar recording, they act as cues that signal action.

Thinking of your own content, ask this: What can be externalized to the environment to cue your audiences to act? Spend time finding the answer to this question because it pays a huge reward: an increased likelihood that your audiences will act on what you believe is important.

A word of caution about stimulus-dependent attention. It may be appealing to rely on it frequently because it does not require cognitive effort on the part of the audience. However, it may be short-lived where memory is concerned. Unless we are offering our audiences a truly distinctive sensory experience, perceptual attention may not carry us far. This is because when we capture attention through the senses, the process leads to sensory memory, which only lasts a fraction of a second. If the stimulus is strongly tied to moving an audience toward a reward or away from a punishment, it may stay active for a longer time. Its length is still debatable among scientists, but short-term memory supposedly lasts from 30 seconds up to a few minutes. If we want to use cues to influence long-term memory at Point A and Point B (and in prospective memory we do), we must combine perception-based attention with attracting and sustaining attention in some other ways. Read on.


We often direct our attention to stimuli that serve our habits. Attention driven by habits is potent because people can sustain it on their own, and once habits are formed, they do not require much cognitive effort.

Routines such as solving a problem, finishing a project, talking to friends—we are drawn to them consciously at first, but after a while, if the process is rewarding, we are capable of focused attention for extremely long periods of time. Consider Edward Steichen, the photographer who spent a whole summer in the 1920s just photographing pears. He produced the famous Three Pears and an Apple shot and was credited for being the first to transform photography into an art form. That’s the result of dedicated and habitual attention. Think of Steve Swingler, the graphic designer who spent a whole year photographing sinks in hotel bathrooms around the world in an effort to regain some life perspective. He returned home to create a successful philosophy project that inspired others to take time and reflect. He notes, “The constant of something as mundane as a sink intrigues, leads to questions, comparisons, and, for those who have been there, memories richer and more personal than yet another sunset or the Taj Mahal.” These touching insights are the result of dedicated and habitual attention.

While awake, people are always paying attention to something. are you where they’re habitually looking?

How do we find places where our audiences are already looking? I once read about an aspiring comedian who wanted to increase his chances of finding a job as a stand-up comic or actor. He asked himself, “Where do potential employers in this field typically go?” They go to restaurants. They go to clubs. They are also in the habit of flying. So he became a flight attendant at Southwest Airlines, working mainly on routes that included Los Angeles—a hub for the entertainment industry. He could both polish his craft with an airline that endorses fun skits and be in a location where potential employers could be.

A startup software company with a spin on creating lightning-fast marketing campaigns does not reinvent the wheel to sell its platform. It figures out how to integrate with because the startup’s ideal customers are already using Salesforce. The next step is to draw their attention to a new feature within a platform they already know. With enough repetition and exposure, the new information becomes associated with old habits. This is much easier and cheaper to do than starting a task of persuasion from scratch.

I remember working with a presenter who was selling a social networking platform for corporate employees. I enjoyed his description of the application (“Facebook for the enterprise”) because he was using a habitual cue (Facebook). In his pitch, the presenter mentioned that in order to accomplish anything in a work setting, business professionals circle among three items: applications, content, and people. We could have easily visualized these three things with generic icons, such as gears for applications, a folder for content, and male and female icons for people, and set all these images against a generic background. Instead, we visualized the three concepts using icons that his targets would recognize in the context of their desktop—a place that is habitual to many. Picture a computer desktop, and on it a folder called Applications, in which you see icons representing PowerPoint, Excel, SAP, and Salesforce. You also see a Content folder, with icons for Word, Adobe Reader, the intranet, SharePoint, and Jive, as well as a People folder, which contains icons for e-mail, Skype, and WebEx. We drew a circle around these three folders and introduced the name of the new application that this presenter was offering. The new application was represented by a neon-green icon, which made it hard to ignore among all the others. The approach to this introduction was to build on top of what an audience considered habitual.

Take a look at an important message you want to communicate. Can you place it in a spot where your audience is habitually hanging out? Once you know that location, you can use physical cues to direct attention to where it counts and to ensure those cues are strong enough that they will be noticed at Point B (e.g., a bright icon associated with your product, which appears in a place people cannot miss).


In addition to cues that prompt attention to the external world, we can also provide an audience with cues directed toward their internal thoughts. Think of this question for a moment: What would you say to a former flame?

I was intrigued by this question, asked by Andy Selsberg, author of Dear Old Love. The book is a brief compilation of anonymous messages from people who pictured what they would say to those they once loved, dated, or divorced. The short entries in the book immediately attract attention: “I am consoled by the fact that the two of you will have very hairy children.” “Please change your e-mail password. I am addicted.” “How were you against holding hands? That’s like hating springtime or being anti-kitten.” “I liked your roommate better.” Some entries are funny, some smart, and some spiteful. To create the book, the author did not have to provide visual stimulation; he simply provided a cue: a potent question that directed people’s attention inward toward a specific topic.

You can do the same with your own audiences. Provide them with cues to focus on specific thoughts, and link those thoughts to your message. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t always need slides or long paragraphs to draw attention.

Here are some examples of cues for reflective attention you can use in your conversations with others to guide people toward their own thoughts.

Reactivate old memories

“Remember what happened when …”

“What surprised you most?”

“What was the most fulfilling part of it?”

Note relationships between concepts

“What is the connection between your CMO and the IT department?”

Elaborate on something they learned in the past

“What did you notice after your last campaign?”

“What will you do differently as a result of this experience?”

Derive meaning

“What happened that contradicted your prior beliefs?”

“What does that suggest about your values?”

“What did the experience teach you about your strengths?”

When we engage our audiences in reflective attention, we promote long-term memory because of a process called elaborate encoding. This means our listeners are creating additional memory traces for the specific topic we are discussing. The memories become even stronger if we reactivate them on subsequent occasions over time. If there is something really important for someone to remember and we are meeting with that person in two weeks, it is useful to ask a few of the same questions again, along with some new questions, so the person doesn’t think you are struggling with your own memory.


Sometimes people are so focused on one point that they totally miss other things going on around them. Professor Ira Hyman from Western Washington University did a study to observe whether people looking at their phones and walking at the same time would notice a nearby clown riding a unicycle. While chatting on the phone, 25% missed the clown, who was wearing a red nose, a bright red-and-yellow costume, and giant red shoes.

These stats remind us of a humbling reality: at any given moment, people can turn away from us and choose another source of stimulation—even if we are as interesting as a clown on a unicycle.

What influences people to deliberately turn their attention to something, especially when most complain that they have such short attention spans? In addition to reflexes and habits, it is practical to link your message to people’s most relevant goals. Unlike reflexes or habits, noticing cues related to goals requires cognitive effort, but it is still possible to draw attention because goals are typically fueled by needs, whose fulfillment is rewarding and which spark enough motivation for action. What are examples of these needs?

Many psychological theories on human needs have been contradicting each other for the last few decades. For each need identified by a psychologist, there has been another to claim that we need the opposite. So scientists are finally considering that we humans may have a set of conflicting needs:

Uncertainty Image Structure

People Image Privacy

Satiation/Survival Image Transcendence

Think about how you may have experienced these conflicting needs in the past few months. You may have searched for a new restaurant or tried a new sport, seeking novelty and surprise. However, while in a meeting, you wanted to know the agenda ahead of time and needed structure, routine, and predictability. You may have sought time with others, perhaps over dinner, but also cherished a few moments on your own. You may have indulged in delicious food and drink but also denied yourself some desires or enlarged your sense of self by joining a social group with valuable aspirations.

The people in your audience are no different. They, too, will have conflicting needs and goals, but all are typically in the service of achieving something rewarding such as a sense of competence, attractiveness, and self-worth. So return to your message with this list of six needs in mind. Can you find ways to tie your message to any of these needs and address their opposites? For example, I once helped a client create a presentation about “making marketing more personalized.” The promise in the pitch to potential buyers was that marketers would be able to create “one-to-one e-mail messages, and send catalogs only to those who wanted them.” This alluded to the need for structure. The promise also included the ability to “start on a small budget and grow from there.” This was linked to a sense of uncertainty, meaning that “great things may happen; you just don’t know them yet.” The presenter also mentioned marketers’ ability to use algorithms on their own (need for privacy) but also join teams to learn from other experts (need for people).

Link your message to a human need, and you will earn attention.

Once you identify a need, consider acknowledging that the opposite may be true for the same audience.

In addition, consider tying your content to an audience’s current but unfulfilled goal. People tend to pay greater attention to and remember more of what is not finished because the brain seeks closure—and it is seeking it now. In a recent experiment, researchers had participants search a series of pictures with a specific goal in mind (e.g., find a picture of eyeglasses followed by one of scissors). One group found the target picture sequence; a second group did not; a control group looked at the same stimuli, for the same amount of time, but was not given a goal. Later, the participants were asked how many words they could remember that were related to the target picture sequence. People from the “target-not-found” group could remember more words related to the target picture sequence than participants in the other groups, while people from the “target-found” group remembered very few words. Having an active goal enhances accessibility to goal-related information (in this case, words related to the pictures), but goal fulfillment reduced that accessibility. In other words, having an active goal enhances recall of relevant information only so long as that goal has not been attained. This is why soap operas and TV series are so successful; they always leave viewers hanging with one unexpected line or mysterious scene at the end that is not resolved.

The goal can be attainable in one shot (get a meal or a winter coat), or it can be something that is process-based and always lingers in the background (staying healthy or being socially desirable). Consider offering the people in your audience both something they can complete using your content and something they cannot complete during a certain amount of time, for which they will have to return to you later on. For example, “There are four steps to create an effective investment plan. Today, we have time to cover the first three.”

Where goal-oriented attention is concerned, we must also consider this question: Do our listeners have enough willpower to either follow our guidance or direct attention on their own toward something that is important? This is a critical question, because if we are talking to people at 5 p.m. and they are already exhausted from a day of work, then it will be hard to get the type of attention that requires greater cognitive effort. They may have little willpower left. It is much more efficient to leave people a note in a large font reminding them to do something for you the next morning than to ask them to work 30 minutes overtime to finish a task, which is likely to require rework the next day.

Social desirability is one of the greatest cues of all because social motives are chronic. Impression management is constantly in the back of our minds: “Do they like me?” “Do they believe me?” “Will they hire me?” Social desirability, tied to the need for people (e.g., their acceptance or approval) is always a background motivation; it does not become satiated and does not go away. And it plays a strong role in memory because we generate cues around it internally (e.g., “When I speak eloquently, they want to spend more time with me”) and we have constant external reminders (e.g., “People who speak eloquently have nice jobs”).

Social desirability cues are practical to master because the mere presence of another person can help reinforce old memories and cue existing knowledge that prompts action. For example, stimuli that are related to social desirability are processed faster in the presence of another person, and people recall more words related to social desirability than neutral words. When we are in the presence of another person and we view ads together, we are more likely to remember those related to social desirability, such as ads for antidandruff shampoo or perfume versus those for a toaster.

Reflecting on your content, ask this: When people are likely to recall my content, will they be surrounded by others, or are they likely to recall and act on the information alone? If we expect our audiences to remember our information in groups, then it’s better to present the content to a group at Point A because the presence of other people will serve as a cue for attention, memory, and action at Point B.


The purpose of our communications, particularly in business, is to have people eventually act on something we say. For example, we hope that the next time potential clients have a choice of vendors, they hire us instead of someone else. The trouble with this is that they are busy with many other things, and we may be one small speck against a crowded background.

The continuum we are after is for people to notice cues, search their memory, and act on intentions. This means we must work at creating and training the association between the cue, memory, and intention. At Point B, it’s not just reactivating the same stimuli that counts; it is reactivating the association between stimuli and intention that counts. fMRI studies show that when we repeat the encoding of the same stimuli (we are shown the same things over and over), there is less activation of the hippocampus. However, when we reactivate the associations between the stimuli, there is greater activity in the hippocampus, and this is what leads to more accurate memory retrieval.

To encode links between cues, memory, and intentions, you can explicitly state them, or you can ask others to state their own intentions: “When I am in situation X, I will perform action Y.” Both work equally well, whether stated verbally or in writing, and are superior to not having any intentions and simply expecting people to perform something from their own memory. Studies show that prospective memory is more effective when it follows the formula of written instructions + imagery. For example, “When I receive a prospect’s information, I will check his or her LinkedIn profile” (and we see a picture of someone’s LinkedIn profile). Any modality of instructions has the possibility to improve prospective memory when you show people “how” to do something. Research findings remind us that even asking people to imagine for 30 seconds that they will do something in the future improves the likelihood of its execution.

It is critical to encode distinctive cues that are not associated with anything else in long-term memory except you or your cause. At the point of decision, Point B, a cue must be distinctive enough so people don’t confuse us with someone else, particularly the competition. We must be humble enough to realize that at Point B, people are typically preoccupied with other things: the right prospective cue is extremely important.

How do we gauge if our cues meet the mark? Consider these guidelines:

1. The nature of the cue. The more the cue corresponds to the memory itself, the stronger the memory. For example, if, in your mind, Kleenex represents tissues and only tissues, then saying “tissues” may quickly bring to mind the brand Kleenex. If someone says “lightbulbs,” you may not immediately think of Philips because the company stands for a lot more than lightbulbs. What we bring to mind is always cue dependent, whether we provide the cue ourselves or someone else does. Weak connections do not activate specific memories.

2. The strength of the cue. If someone says “beer” but you are not a beer drinker, then that cue does not bring about a particular memory. Cues become strong with enough exposure and repetition.

3. The number of connections of that cue in our memory with other elements. If someone says “beer,” how many brands come to mind? If you address an audience and say “predictive analytics,” are you the only vendor that comes to mind? Can you find a word or term that only you’re associated with in your listeners’ brains? People find it hard to form if-then plans if the number of cues increases.

Here is an example of how these findings are reflected in content creation.

As part of a university advertising campaign aimed at convincing students to drink less, posters around campus read, “65% of students at our university have 3 or fewer drinks when they party.” It was meant to appeal to the student population using social proof: the more students were shown to follow acceptable behavior, the more students might be motivated to emulate others. Social proof may be a great decision driver, but students need to remember the message at a time and place when it matters most: at Point B, in places where they might drink, not while walking around on campus, away from the bar.

To increase the likelihood that the “drink less” message will not be ignored when it counts, imagine if university staff had placed reminder messages on coasters in bars or on entrance bracelets or hand stamps in nightclubs. In one study, bar owners were asked to place “light cubes” in alcoholic drinks. These were plastic LED lights in the shape of ice cubes that emitted flashes of red and blue light, reminiscent of the ones on police cars. Drinking diminished due to the distinct visual cues at a time and in a place where it mattered most.

With your content in mind, consider the nature of cues at both stages: encoding and retrieval. So far, we’ve discussed using cues for attracting attention at encoding. In the retrieval stage, cognitive scientists remind us of three criteria that cues must meet to impact memory and action when it counts:

1. People must recognize the cues at retrieval. In the “drink less” campaign, a more effective strategy would have been also to advertise those LED ice cubes so they don’t look completely new when they are spotted in bars.

2. Once people recognize the cue, they must still retrieve the associated action. In the “drink less” campaign, this means that they must be reminded that the LED ice cubes are linked to “don’t drink.” This association is stronger at retrieval if established at encoding.

3. People must be able to coordinate what they are doing now and what they should be doing. In the “drink less” campaign, this means that the LED ice cubes must be placed in glasses before it’s too late. For other content type, we must ask: Is the cue distinct enough for people to interrupt what they are doing now to achieve another desirable state? Is the reward obvious enough that it pushes them to switch tasks?

In attempting to influence your audience’s memory and actions, using cues that will be noticed later on is one of the most important steps because that’s often where memory and intentions start. Researchers are observing, “The noticing function might be more effortful than the search function. The noticing function might frequently require explicit memory or rehearsal to respond to a prospective cue, but once the cue is noticed, relatively little memory is needed for the search function to determine what to do.” So once you take care of this step—helping others notice cues—your task as an effective communicator becomes easier. Just as easy as noticing a red jacket in a crowd.


✵ When the cues you use to attract attention at Point A are similar to what people encounter later at Point B, the cues are more likely to signal action.

✵ Physical properties of stimuli such as unusual colors, textures, size, motion, loud sounds, harmony, or orientation of objects can force people to look “despite themselves.” These types of cues work because they do not require much cognitive effort.

✵ Create cues that are linked to existing habits (e.g., associating new information with a software application people already use). Attention driven by habits is potent because people can sustain it on their own, and once habits are formed, they do not require much cognitive effort.

✵ Use cues to direct attention inward and prompt audiences to focus on habitual thoughts. When you engage your audiences in reflective attention, you promote long-term memory because of a process called elaborate encoding.

✵ Link your message to people’s most important goals. Unlike reflexes or habits, goals require cognitive effort, but attention is still possible because goals are fueled by needs. Consider acknowledging that an audience may have conflicting needs, such as uncertainty versus structure, people versus privacy, and survival versus transcendence.

✵ Tie your message to a current but unfulfilled goal. People tend to pay greater attention to and remember more of what is not finished because the brain seeks closure.

✵ Link cues to social desirability because impression management is a strong motivation driver. People tend to pay attention to what makes them look good in front of others.

✵ Ensure that people have enough willpower to pay attention to you (e.g., present important messages early in the day).

✵ Strengthen the association between cues, memory, and intentions.