How to build a message for seven-second attention spans

Attention spans are short these days—chances are you won't make it through the next three paragraphs without a text or a co-worker or a shiny object stealing your focus. Which is exactly why Tellabs CMO George Stenitzer suggests you build your message accordingly.

"Customers' attention spans are short. Concise messages help you cut through the clutter," he said. Just how short? "It's crucial to tell your story in seven seconds," he added. "That's the length of an average sound bite in news media, or a tweet."

Your customers are being bombarded with information every minute of every day. Even if your marketing message is something that appeals to them, if it takes too long to digest it will never even register for them.

It can be a challenge, though, to strip the complex story of your brand down into something that customers will understand at a glance. Stenitzer has a few tips for how to boil down that bloated idea into something sleek and to the point.

1. Convene your experts and listen closely. These are the people who know the most about the message you're trying to get across, so who better to guide you? Pay attention to the shorthand they use to convey it and ask them how they would explain the idea to their mother or a neighbor who knows nothing about the topic. Sharing working drafts of the message on a whiteboard or via screen sharing is also important to helping build a concensus.

2. Use words that work. The best way to find out which words will resonate with your consumers is to talk to them. Barring that, you should talk to sales to discover what customers are asking for in their exact words. "How do they describe the problem or need?" Stenitzer asked. "Learn which words play with customers and which don't."

3. Edit by addition. Sitting down to trim that message can be the most daunting part, but Stenitzer warns that you should obsess over the cutting right from the beginning. "If you start with a 400-word text, don't try to subtract words to get to 23. You'll never get there," he explained. "Instead, highlight key words and build up a message around them."

4. Create a message map. This is one of the most efficient ways to build a short message, and it's a strategy Stenitzer has used to help everything from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits distill their message. "A good message map makes one main point, supported by three positive points," he described. "Two points are not enough, and more than three clutters the message."

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