The Invisible Conversation (Attention & Value)

“Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it.”

Matthew Crawford (The Cost of Paying Attention, The New York Times)

As knowledge workers, creative professionals, influencers, and thought leaders, when performing the sacred act of serving an audience, our most valuable resource is attention.

Without attention, we have nothing. No audience, no power to influence, no revenue, no business, no ability to be valuable. Everything is on the other side of attention.

But acquiring lasting attention is a counterintuitive puzzle. Because earning attention requires a different lens through which we see our role in the invisible transaction.

Shouting louder isn’t the answer. If it were, my drunk uncle would be a billionaire with followers in the millions. The paradox is the more one works to trick attention, succumbing to vanity metrics that prioritize and reward clicks and page views, the more the essence of earned attention is undermined and whittled away.

The recipe for success isn’t pairing more clickbait, more listicles, more blind curiosity, with shallow content.

Playing the short-term game is a reputational liability with no payoff long-term, a tightrope walk risking death by a thousand paper cuts as reputation damage takes its toll in the pursuit of wringing out every last click.

Thanks, but no thanks.

As Seth Godin says, the danger of playing this game is that you win the race to the bottom.

“In life the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah

To earn attention, we need to play a different game altogether. Where the clean signal in the incessant noise can be heard, and amplified. This is the infinite game of being valuable.

Think about the implication of that for a sec.

Let it sink in before moving on.

Being valuable is a world away from the growth-hacking attention tactics and low-value content that has permeated every inch of our noisy news feeds and social graphs, drowning out the signal.

Borrowing from Mark Twain, who borrowed from Josh Billings, the difference between getting this right and getting it almost right is the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.

Implicit in being valuable is that we are valuable.

And we’re valuable to the degree that we’re useful — to our readers and the people we seek to serve. Being valuable has a gravitational pull on the people who need that value.

What is the value?

“You did something in your past to solve a hard problem and learned something about the world that not a lot of other people know.”

Ben Horowitz, a16z (Earned Secrets)

I posit we’re in the “earned secrets” business, to use Horowitz’s language.

Our job as sense-makers starts by thinking deeply, asking smart questions, then synthesizing and abstracting knowledge, making it accessible to the right people — the people attracted to us, who seek and need it what we have.

Sharing novel, engaging, or thought-provoking ideas that can help them based on our experiences and made valuable through a perspective of having walked the path before.

A map. A sacred act.

The best way to dimensionalize the needs of an audience is to zoom right in to see individual trees, not the forest view.

We need a character, a hero, an archetype that embodies a reader within our broader audience. I’ll call our character Harper.

Harper is burdened with a problem. It affects Harper’s well-being and quality of life, causing sleepless nights, the shadow of anxiety never far away.

This burden, while negative, is motivating, pulling Harper to seek a solution somewhere out there on the internet. A search. Or article. Or thoughtful referral.

And just like that, Harper is pulled into the orbit of our world.

“Hey,” you say through the content Harper has landed on. “You look troubled. Can I perhaps help?”

“I don’t know, can you?” thinks Harper, reading on, engaging with the content, their attention focusing, intrigued by our framing, our voice.

“If this resonates with the symptoms of your problem, here’s another way to think about solving it,” we say as Harper scrolls deeper down the rabbit hole, excitement replacing intrigue, our content clarifying their problem in HD fidelity, speaking directly to the pain they’ve been plagued by for so long.

I hear you, I see you — you’re one of us.

And just like that, a non-verbal dialogue ensues, an invisible conversation unfolds, rapport established, wrapped tightly within a narrative voice expressing empathy and demonstrating authority, as more of Harper’s concerns and questions never considered are knocked over like dominoes.

“Yes!” The burden is lifting. Harper is no longer alone.

This next part is critical, so listen up…

The big paradigm shift in this metaphor is our role in Harper’s journey. Harper needs a guide, not a hero to emulate.

A guide is different. A guide has a plan to follow. A treasure map where X marks the spot and a way to get there. Indicating where the dragons are hiding and how to slay them. Where the booby traps are hidden and how to avoid them. And recognizing that the path isn’t a straight line but meaningfully different for everyone. Life, after all, is nuanced.

A hero to emulate draws attention to their success, but if they provide a map to get there, it’s an N-of-1, fine to imbue motivation but not useful for much else.

The guide gives our character, our hero — Harper — a plan. This plan encourages them on their call to adventure towards a successful result, the thing they desire.

Think of me as your guide.

I’m talking to you right now, right here.

Out of twenty years of experience and expertise, I have something for you. It’s valuable. Embodied between the lines and subtext of this page is a treasure map. But it’s hidden from most people.

Can you feel it?

Do you see it?

Knowledge that helps someone solve a significant problem, or fulfill a meaningful desire — this is value. Sharing your knowledge is what makes you valuable.

“… stories are the shape they are because they are the dramatization of the process by which we learn (…) if stories are the dramatization of the way we learn, you start with a lack of knowledge and you end with knowledge.”

John Yorke, BAFTA-winning British drama producer and screenwriter (source)

I think of Donald Miller’s storytelling framework (StoryBrand) as a metaphor for value creation. (It’s an abstraction of the classic Hero’s Journey structure popularized by Joseph Campbell.)

Source: StoryBrand.com

As knowledge workers, we can use the storytelling framework to create short-form and long-form content (written, audio, or video) that’s never “shallow.”

Shallow content doesn’t embody value. Shallow content is the dribble you see everywhere. A hatchet job offering nothing new, nothing noteworthy, no novel idea, angle, or perspective. Its job, to bait an audience, not meaningfully inform — not present a “plan.”

Deep content doesn’t have to mean long. Deep content offers fresh perspectives, drawing attention to implications, distilling of complex thoughts and novel ideas expressed in interesting ways. A “plan” that’s valuable to our reader; to Harper, to _someone specific.

Finding useful content is valuable.

Our value in a digital world obsessed with clicks and ad revenue and shouting ever louder for attention is being a conduit, a linchpin, of useful value thoughtfully expressed in interesting and novel ways.

That’s how we win. Because Harper wins first.

It’s fortifiable. Memorable. Durable.

It’s what we do as value-creators playing the infinite game of being valuable. We engineer invisible conversations.