The Science of Audience Attention

A great way to learn about brilliant influence is to watch back editions of The West Wing.  Many of the characters are supreme communicators and, as a political speechwriter, the character of Toby Ziegler is well placed to articulate how to build a compelling speech.  In a few words (which I have put into bold), he explains how you can use the patterns and rhythms of language to grab and hold attention, to emphasise ideas, and make them memorable. Following a few simple processes, you can do the same.

Toby Ziegler: “You want to know the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.”

Officer Rhonda Sachs: “Yes.”

Toby Ziegler: “Food is cheaper! Clothes are cheaper. Steel is cheaper. Cars are cheaper. Phone service is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s because I’m a speech writer – I know how to make a point.”

Officer Rhonda Sachs: “Toby…”

Toby Ziegler: “It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there?”

Officer Rhonda Sachs: “Yes.”

Toby Ziegler: “It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites, and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. Heh, and that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest. One world, one peace – I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.”


Chapter 5 of Brilliant Influence is all about how you can use the power of language to influence others.  You will see other ways that Toby could have used repetition and how else he could have ended his sequence.  Here, let’s look at some examples of “opposites”.

Toby says of free trade: “It lowers prices: it raises income.” Lowers and raises are opposites, which he sets against one another. Here are three more ways to do this; three C’s.

Contradiction: Toby could, for example, have said:
“I don’t say it raises prices; I say it lowers them.”

Contrast: Toby could have contrasted free trade with tariffs:

“Free trade lowers prices; tariffs raise them.”

Comparison: Toby could have compared the effects of free trade and tariffs:

“Free trade lowers prices more than tariffs raise tax revenue.”

All of these examples have a “this not that” structure that is responsible for some of the most memorable phrases we have, like Neil Armstrong’s:

“one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”


About Mike Clayton

Mike is an author and speaker, specialising in personal effectiveness, project management and the management of change. When we try to make change work for us, things don't always go as planned: Shift happens! Over the years, Mike has developed personal and professional strategies to anticipate and deal with shift. You can contact Mike at
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One Response to The Science of Audience Attention

  1. Dominic Walsh says:

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