Aah..let’s here the sympathy for poor Cheryl Cole…cruelly “sacked” from the American version of The X-Factor – apparently for her Geordie accent. It seems that in the pilot programmes no-one could understand her. But as the talk-radio presenter LaDona Harvey said on TalkSport yesterday, the chances of people from Newcastle understanding anyone from Alabama are also pretty slim.

Cheryl Cole SackedHowever, Cheryl can relax – it’s not about her accent. Rather it is about attention. Our brains can attend to several things at once – you are reading this and (maybe) also listening to music, or aware of emails popping in, or even watching TV out of the corner of one eye. We may not be truly multi-tasking, but we are aware of several things at the same time. The problem for Cheryl is that in order to understand her accent, her American TV viewers have to give up attending to everything and truly concentrate on listening to her. It seems they are not prepared to do this; instead they want to listen to her AND do something else at the same time. Perhaps she is not as engaging as Simon Cowell thought.

New research shows us that when something truly captures our brain, we do give up attending to other things. The study from University College London shows that people can actually switch off their hearing in order to focus on a task that requires more brain power. You may have “selective deafness” when your partner asks you to do something you don’t want, or when your mother-in-law turns up, but you still hear what they say; you just pretend you don’t. What is interesting about this new research is that it shows people actually do not even hear sounds when they are concentrating on another task; they have become temporarily deaf.

So here is a simple test you can apply to your website. Get someone to start reading it – and then after a suitable pause ask them a question that is unrelated to your website. If they can answer the question it means their brain is devoting resources to reading AND listening AND answering. In other words they are not fully concentrating on your website. If, however, they do not answer your question – if they appear to ignore you – then fantastic, your website rocks because they are so immersed in it, so engaged with it, their hearing has been temporarily switched off.

Yes, I know it is a crude and rough and ready measure – but you get my drift, I hope. If people can see those email alerts coming in while they read your website, if they do hear the phone ringing in the background, if they do say “two sugars please” to the person making their coffee, then you know your website is not as engaging as you think it is. They are able to see and hear other things, which shows their attentional resources are divided.

What you want to do is make your site so engaging that people cannot hear the phone ring or the dog barking. You want to silence the world around your website visitors.

The Cheryl Cole incident suggests that it was not her accent that was the problem – but that what she was saying just wasn’t interesting enough for people to divert their attention to listening to her. Which only goes to prove one thing: good content is what truly matters. Have that and you will silence the world.

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