Breaking Through The Attention Filter

2 min readJul 24, 2018


If you don’t make it past the filter it doesn’t matter what the f$ck your story is about.

If it takes you more than quarter of a second to read all the words in this sentence then you are, scientifically speaking, a moron.

That made you stop and pause for a moment didn’t it?

Ok, so it’s a) not true and b) it’s simply there to prove a point.

That is the fact that we are bombarded with so much information every day that in order for something to cut through it needs to grab our attention.

To do this, it needs to pass through the ‘filter’ from our subconscious to our conscious. This exists to protect the conscious brain (which has relatively slow processing speeds) from being overwhelmed.

As a storyteller this is of paramount importance. If you don’t make it past the gatekeeper then it really doesn’t matter what your story is about in the first place.

In her excellent book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron sums it up well when she writes,

‘…in order to distract us from the relentless demands of our immediate surroundings, a story has to grab our attention fast.’

So what kind of stuff makes it through the filter?

Anyone who works in the advertising industry is probably best placed to answer this question. After all, advertisers have to be masterful storytellers to get their point across in 30 seconds or less.

The legendary UK advertising creative Dave Trott has a wonderfully simple way of explaining it with his anecdote about watching a series of TV ads.

He says to imagine the ads being represented by a line of ‘X’s with one ‘O’ in the middle. I.e. something like the below:


The ‘X’s mark the adverts which are all similar in their look, tone and message.

They become familiar to the brain and so it ‘tags’ them as not being worth your attention. They are not providing anything of interest; ergo they don’t pass through the filter.

The lone ‘O’ on the other hand is something novel and different. Your brain hasn’t seen something similar to it before so it stands out. Because the information might be important it is prioritised up the chain.

It makes it past the filter.




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