Cognitive Processing: Your Best Defence Against Digital Distraction

August 23, 2013 | 
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Most of you won’t make it to the end of this blog post.

Over the course of the next 600 words, chances are you’ll succumb to the temptation of open browser tabs, flagged emails, overheard conversation, unanswered text messages, or any number of interruptions that will draw your attention elsewhere.

Digital DistractionPure and simple: Today’s workforce is distracted beyond comprehension. We are exposed to a constant stream of data from our phones, PCs, email, television, social media, etc. And it comes as no shocker that this information overload has an immense impact on our ability to remain focused on the task at hand. According to a recent study by Gloria Mark, a leader in the field of “Interruption Science” at the University of California, Irvine, the average employee switches tasks every three minutes. Once distracted, it takes nearly a half-hour for that worker to get back to their original task.

Still here?

As a salesperson myself, I know how hard it can be to break through the wall of digital distraction to get your message across to busy decision makers. That’s why I rely heavily on lessons learned in my previous career — as a licensed clinical therapist. It was during these years that I first came to understand how the human brain navigates the day-to-day pressures of information overload via a psychological process known as cognitive processing, in which we quickly assess incoming information and then triage it to the appropriate mental storage compartment.

In today’s world of 24-7-365 communication, open-office layouts, and mile long to-do lists, salespeople can’t risk throwing something against a wall and hoping it sticks. If you want to capture mindshare and attention from key decision makers, consider the following:

Use More Than One Communication Channel

phone emailWhen reaching out to your intended contact, make an effort to use two or more channels of communication. For example, try first sending over an email, and then follow up with a voicemail message soon thereafter. By touching your business contact in two faculties – the eyes and ears – you have potentially multiplied the impact of your intended message to get past what mental health professionals refer to as “cognitive triage.”

During our working days all information is triaged, categorized and dealt with based on importance.  A standalone email or voicemail is often relegated to the mind’s trash bin.  However, if the message comes at your intended recipient twofold, it is subconsciously relabeled as “give a quick look.”

Be Different

Cognitively, executives are bombarded by a never ending din of electronic noise (calls, emails, texts, etc). You’ve got to stand out from the rest of the field if you want to break through. A few ideas:

  • Rhyme next time. In Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human, the author notes that rhymes increase what cognitive scientists refer to as “processing fluency” — e.g. the ease with which our minds make sense of outside stimuli. In other words, phrases that are familiar sounding and easy to understand are given more credibility and are more likely to induce action. Including a rhyme in your pitch just might enhance the processing fluency of your prospect, making it more likely that your idea will stick.

  • Include a number in the subject line. Several studies show that numbers written out as numerals (i.e. 22 as opposed to twenty-two) stop wandering eyes of online readers.

  • Keep it simple. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that people are more likely to respond to email requests that are easy to answer, as opposed to complex messages that require more time and mental energy to address.

Congrats — you made it to the end of this post! Now check out this plug-in that automates tasks you’re doing on your own right now — so you can focus on what matters. 


Rob MeierRobert Meier, MSW, LCSW is an Account Executive at Fujifilm Medical Systems. He draws on 25 years of experience in his former career as a mental health therapist to build better customer relationships in his current role.

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