Tipping the scales in your favour in the attention economy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 29, 2014
Filed in Business storytelling


The story I’m about to share featured in a case study we recently published about our work with Yammer. It got me thinking about something Ursula (the protagonist in the story) did that all business leaders are trying to achieve. Have a read and let’s have a look.

Ursula Llabres had just 10 minutes to communicate her message to 200 Microsoft sales reps.

In 2012, Microsoft acquired the enterprise social network, Yammer, where Llabres works as a customer success manager. Her objective: help Microsoft Office365 ‘Black Belts’ understand the value and impact of Yammer.

At the event, Llabres shared two customer stories. During a day packed with back-to-back sessions, her presentation stood out from the rest.

“It was the only talk all day where people closed their laptops and listened,” said Steve Hopkins, Director of Customer Success for Yammer’s Australia region and a colleague of Llabres’.

When Llabres finished, hands shot up with questions and Microsoft requested a follow-on impromptu Yammer 101 session for later that day. Reps approached Llabres with more questions and requests to connect on Yammer. The approach Llabres and her Yammer colleagues took to preparing and delivering their messages varied significantly from other speakers that day.

In a world full of information the scarcest resource is attention. Unlike information it’s a finite resource because only people can provide attention and there are only so many hours in the day. And with smartphones buzzing, screens blinking, colleagues popping in for a chat, there are now so many more ways for our attention to be diverted, or even diluted.

The idea of an attention economy has been with us for some time. In fact I remember the first time I heard the term back in 2002 when Tom Davenport and John Beck published their book adeptly named, The Attention Economy. But perhaps the first person to describe the concept was Nobel Prize winning social scientist Herbert A. Simon when he wrote in 19711:

“… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

Ursula was able to draw the attention of her Microsoft colleagues for a couple of reasons:

  1. sharing stories is a different way to communicate in most corporate environments. It was a surprise. It sounded and felt difference to all the death by PowerPoint presentations on the day. And as Steve Jobs knew so well, we love surprises.
  2. sharing a story is a pull strategy, meaning that when you share an opinion or a viewpoint you’re pushing your ideas at the audience, and they tend to push back. Whereas when you share a story the audience tends to pull the story towards them and visualise it happening. The audience relives the experience with the storyteller and in the process becomes engaged in what’s been shared.
  3. professionals appreciate that we learn most from experience and really value hearing what actually happened. A story is simply an account of what happened with something unanticipated happening. A good story helps the audience visualise what happened. And a great story helps the audience feel what happened.

Once Ursula gained everyone’s attention she was able to help them imagine what happened and even help them feel an emotion such as pride, curiosity or admiration. By piquing an emotion the audience has a much greater chance of remembering what Ursula said. And even if they don’t remember the details they will remember the feeling that Yammer is interesting, doing good things and valuable to its customers.

1. Simon, H. A. (1971), “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, in Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, ISBN 0-8018-1135-X

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Great post. My first thought is: I really want to know the stories Ursula told!

    Then I wondered ‘what is it with those bears?

    I really like the inverse information/attention idea. Although it does remind me of the similar question: do we actually have less time or is it just the choices we make?

    1. Let me start with the bears. This might be a long bow, but I chose this photo because a bear catching a fish is our logo for Storytelling for Leaders plus these two bears clearly have their attention drawn to something stage right. Yep, a little obscure. I can see that now.

      Do you know Steve Hopkins at Yammer? His twitter handle is @stevehopkins. He could tell you the stories that were told.

      Choice is an important element to the idea of attention. The thing is we have so many inciting things to choose from these days and it is so easy to get distracte

  2. Nice piece Shawn.

    Like Kate, I also noticed the bears and assumed that you had chosen them to link to the name Urusula (meaning ‘little bear’).
    The visual connection certainly made me remember her name.
    It’s another powerful aspect of storytelling: the ability to conjure up vivid internal ‘pictures’ that reinforce memories.

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