Getting a Squirrel to Focus

Summary Written by Jill Donahue
"A new fight is brewing over what might currently be the scarcest resource: our attention. We are now in an ‘attention economy’."

- Getting a Squirrel to Focus, page 52

The Big Idea


"Your message is competing against short attention spans, information overload and other mindless distractions."- Getting a Squirrel to Focus, page 8

While the amount of information being produced is expanding exponentially, unfortunately attention spans are decreasing. Dr. Scott suggests our attention spans are more like a squirrel’s than you might think! What’s the one thing that can increase a squirrel’s focus? An ACORN!

Dr. Scott gives us the recipe to create an acorn for our listeners. This time-tested persuasive strategy can be applied to any presentation, sales call, conversation, interview or negotiation. The key is to take the time before your next conversation to think through your strategy and be sure to include the following ideas:

A – Audience – Identify your audience’s WIIFM (What’s in it for me) and the relevance to them of the problem your message will solve.

C – Credibility – Help them see why you are the right person to help them solve the problem.

O – Order of message – Use the persuasive structure with your framed key message first.

R – Remember – Make your message easy to remember by chunking information and use easy language, metaphors and mnemonics. A strong call to action also helps.

N – Need to connect – Use strategies to engage them with emotion.

Insight #1

Remember me

"…our listening problem is not information overload….the real problem is organization underload."- Getting a Squirrel to Focus, page 52

I work with very smart people in healthcare: pharmaceutical professionals and doctors. These scientific minds have loads of great information to share and usually have solid arguments. They are all competent speakers; they know how to stand, look at their audience, vary their voices and gesticulate. The trouble is, their audiences don’t listen closely to their message or act on it. For example, patient non-adherence is a huge barrier to optimal health outcomes.

Why don’t patients listen to doctors? While the doctors are great at the science of the treatment they are not necessarily great at the science of how adults learn. Often they spew a plethora of information. They “tell” instead of “engage”. Their listeners end up drowning in the information or turning away. It’s like asking people to take a sip of water from a fire hose.

They often flood the audience with ideas, facts and evidence; known as “the data dump”. Dr. Scott offers three ideas to prevent this including:

  1. Learn how adults learn. Connect new ideas with old ideas using metaphors or mnemonics.
  2. Learn how memory works. Use small words and short sentences. Chunk the information. Create patterns. We listen to and remember no more than 3-5 ideas at a time (e.g. think about how phone numbers are chunked 800-555-1212).
  3. Learn how to get the audience to take action.

And above all, know that the need for emotional connection is key. As Dale Carnegie said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” If you don’t engage your audience emotionally, you will fail to persuade.

So how can a scientist work emotion into a message without sounding too fluffy or dramatic? Easy, Scott suggests. It can be as simple as word choice and pictures. If your audience can see or visualize the message then they can feel it. Three ways to help include:

  1. Use word choice to promote connotation.
  2. Use vivid language to tell a detailed story.
  3. Use word choice to make the abstract something one can understand in the new context.

For example, which statement from your doctor would engage you to want to learn more about altering your diet and lifestyle?

  1. You need to think about altering your diet and lifestyle now in the early stages of your disease to prevent end organ damage.or
  2. You need to think about altering your diet and lifestyle. Why? Think of your body like a house that is starting on fire. When a house begins to burn, you can save the contents and structure if you catch it while it is still smoking, but once that fire catches it can do a lot of damage to the house contents. If it remains unmanaged, of course it will bring the whole house down. Your body is now sending us smoke signals.

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Insight #2

Call to Action

"There is nothing worse than actually being persuaded but then walking out of the room and losing that feeling of wanting to change or to help or to act."- Getting a Squirrel to Focus, page 67

After you’ve created your ACORN you still need to do one important thing. Whether you name it a call to action, a close or a conclusion, Dr. Scott describes three things that will make it better.

  1. Be as specific as possible with what you are asking your audience to do.
  2. Make it doable. What is the easiest way for them to start doing what you want?
  3. Make it something they can do very soon after you ask. Time will diminish their commitment to the idea and they will forget.

It would be great if all we have to do to become masterful communicators and persuaders is read a book on it. But, even though Scott’s concepts are easy to understand, she concludes by urging us to explore further, practice with support and continue to learn.

Read the book

Get Getting a Squirrel to Focus on Amazon.

Patricia B Scott

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