Learning From Motown Hits That Grabbed Us in 10 Seconds

By Kevin Sullivan

January 13, 2020

The Temptations had us at, “I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.” 

That lyric by famed Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland was more than the powerful opening line of No. 1 mega-hit, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

It was the product of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s strategy to produce hit records - and a lasting lesson for today’s communicators and message-crafters. 

Gordy was clearly ahead of his time. 

In the 1990s, Microsoft research executive Linda Stone predicted that one day our digital communication would be predominantly mobile – and the moment that happens, our society will be in a state of what she labeled, “continuous partial attention.”
 
There is abundant evidence that she nailed it.  We know from the Pew Research Center that we are consuming news and information like never before, but that we are doing it more as “scrollers” on mobile devices than “readers.”  Amazon Web Services research tells us the average attention span on a digital task is 40 seconds and that 49 percent of our audience stops paying attention after 111 words.  Data shows we retain and understand information about half as well on a mobile device as we did in print and on desktops. 

I recently watched last year’s fantastic Showtime documentary, Hitsville: The Making of Motown.  I’m a sucker for a good rock doc, but this one did more than educate me on the history of the powerhouse label. 

It reinforced the most vital communications imperative for today’s “continuous partial attention” environment:  We must get right to our most important message, keep it simple and connect with our target audience through energy and storytelling. That applies if we want to break through with a memorable and persuasive message - or write a hit single for that matter. 

“Berry had a great ear,” said Lamont Dozier, one-third of the juggernaut Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team responsible for 25 No.1 hits. “He was always saying If you don’t get them in the first four to eight bars, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”
 
Added legendary performer, producer and songwriter Smokey Robinson, pictured above with Gordy: “(Gordy) would say it all the time.  ‘Got to get them in the first 10 seconds.’” 

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” which spent eight weeks at No.1, certainly did that by opening with the powerful lyric after a one-second drum fill. Hits such as The Four Tops’ 1965 smash, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" and “Get Ready” - a Motown hit for both The Temptations in 1966 and Rare Earth in 1970 - are examples of what Robinson described in the film as Gordy’s call for ”fabulous intros – something that will get their attention immediately.”
 
That strategy worked to create unforgettable pop hits then and it works to create memorable - maybe even toe-tapping - messages today.