Want to capture an audience’s attention?
It’s more a matter of what you don’t do than you think.
As children, when we learn to speak our language, we’re also learning to argue. Nearly everything our parents say to us is a correction, an explanation, or an argument for why we shouldn’t put that in our mouths, or why we should go to bed now and not in half an hour.
It’s no surprise that we begin practicing the fine art of objecting, contradicting and basically giving our well-intentioned parents a damned hard time. We’re no sooner given an argument than we begin picking it apart to hand back our own argument.
At first, kids aren’t so hot at this argument thing. But they watch and learn, and soon, they begin to get crafty. Savvy. Before you know it, they’re two steps ahead of you, winning more arguments than they lose, through some excellent manipulative tactics.
How can you win, as a parent? The same way you win over your audience.
To engage another person – from 3 to 102 in age – you have to stop arguing and start captivating. You have to stop battling to retain authority. You need to regain control of your audience’s attention. You need to weave enchantments in the air before their very eyes – enchantments so magnificent that they’d never look away.
And as with most magic, this is both simpler and more difficult than you might imagine.
Interrupt the Pattern
Magic is predicated on a simple idea: what you expect to happen doesn’t.
A bunch of flowers turns into a bird. A coin disappears into a handkerchief. A woman gets sawed in half to no ill effect. A dropped ball doesn’t fall, but hovers in midair.
Through life, we come to recognize patterns of behavior and expect them to occur. Objects don’t transform into other objects. Objects don’t disappear. People sawed in half tend to remain that way, and are fairly distressed about the process. And gravity is a law.
Now, a small child isn’t amazed by magic tricks. Young kids haven’t been in the world long enough to establish an expectation of what will happen based on the patterns they know about the way things are.
For all a child knows, gravity may not always work. Flowers just might become birds.
Grown-ups have been around long enough to recognize that flowers don’t become birds. That dropped objects fall. And when the opposite happens, they’re amazed.
They’re also captivated.
This is called pattern interrupt: you take a premise that your audience has always held to be true, and you disprove it. To use this technique in writing a sales page or a marketing piece, it would go something like this:
What if I told you that there really were twenty-six hours in the day – if you knew where to find them?
Everyone knows there are twenty-four hours in the day. Always have been, always will be. We frequently complain about the fact. And yet – what if this were true? What if you could get 26 hours from your day?
What if the pattern could be interrupted?
Incorporate that sense of possibility into your writing, and you have your audience’s attention.
Build Rapport – the Right Way
You’ve likely seen every good entertainer do this next trick, from singers to comedians to street performers.
“Anyone here from New York City?”
This question usually gets a round of applause, especially if you happen to be in New York City at the time. Any question that applies to a decent percentage of your audience will do – “Anyone out there have kids?”, “Anyone out there hate Mondays?”, “Anyone here wish they didn’t have to go to work tomorrow?”
The comedian then goes on to tell a little story about hating Mondays, or parenting kids, and whoever hates Mondays and has kids in the audience feels a bond. It’s instant, and it creates rapport in its simplest form.
When writing engaging sales and marketing, you need to get more sophisticated than this – but not much more.
You already know some things about your intended audience. You may know they’re largely middle-aged working women, for example, or stay-at-home parents, or entrepreneurs, or hairdressers.
Use that to build rapport. Tell them what you know about them. What they like, what they don’t like, what they wish they could do, what they wish they didn’t have to do, what they did today, what they’ll do tomorrow, how it feels when they run up against their biggest challenges.
Keep this information at least tangentially related to your service, product or offer, and something interesting starts to happen.
Your audience begins thinking of a question. And that question is: can you help me?
They’ll feel you know them. Understand them. Sympathize with their problems and know how hard it is to be them when it’s hard – and just how great it can be when it’s great.
And of course, since you clearly convey the sympathy and compassion, the question comes all on its own.
Yes, that’s what I’m going through. You understand… I feel it. Can you help me?
The answer is, of course, yes. You can.
Here’s the important part: you didn’t have to convince anyone. You didn’t have to ask, “How can I help you?” Readers did that work for you, simply because you created rapport with people who just want to be understood and sympathized with.
Show your audience that you understand where they’re coming from, and they’ll do half the work of sales for you.
And, Not But
One final trick from the magician’s dossier: never say ‘but’. Always say ‘and’.
Classically, this is an improvisational actor’s formula. It works equally well in pretty much all aspects of life, especially sales and marketing.
Our minds are hardwired for argument, and you don’t need to look farther than a 6-year-old to figure out which of the most argumentative words in the English language are top of the list:
“But I don’t want to!”
“Can I have dessert if I eat five peas?”
“Why do I have to brush my teeth?”
And, of course, the classic “no”.
Give any piece of your writing a good look. You might be surprised to see how often you use these argumentative words. You probably used them in what you consider a positive way – for example:
“I know you think you don’t have enough time for this, but let me tell you why you need to make time.”
You’ve likely seen that around the internet on all sorts of websites and blogs. And it sounds positive, right? Positive it may be, but it’s still an argument.
When you’re trying to engage a reader, you don’t want to argue. You don’t want to put them on the defensive. You don’t want to make them feel they’re wrong. You just want to draw them in.
And you can do that by switching out argumentative words for engaging ones.
Instead of “but”, use “and”.
The horse flew up into the sky.
If you think “But horses can’t fly!” you’ve created an argument. If you say “And it flew so high that the stars started to worry they would be bowled over,” you’ve created a story. Far more engaging, far less argumentative, and a far better reason for anyone to keep reading.
Instead of “if”, use “when”.
If we go out to eat tomorrow, we’ll go somewhere nice.
This sets up an argument right off the bat. Will we go out to eat? Maybe, maybe not. If we do, then we’ll do this. If not, then that. Two possibilities.
When we go out to eat tomorrow, we’ll go somewhere nice.
This creates a sense of anticipation – and story. Something is about to happen. Oooh, what will it be, I wonder?
Instead of “why”, ask “how”.
There are all sorts of variations of this question bandied around online:
Why wouldn’t you take this deal?
I can give you forty answers to this question, and none of them work out well for you. I’m also arguing with you again, and I don’t want to argue. I want to dream, and I want you dreaming with me.
How would your life be different if you took this deal?
I can give you forty answers to this question, too, and all of them begin with the premise that I’ve already decided to take the deal. All the stories I come up with are enjoyable fantasies, and it’s easy to feel good about them.
Which is the point – helping people feel good.
Use the ideas above, and your audience won’t even realize you’ve pulled off the most difficult feat in marketing: capturing their attention without ever activating their desire to argue with you.
Before they know it, they’ll be throwing money into your hat – and you’ll know you’ve performed your magic well.
How do you craft engaging messages to connect with your audience? Share in the comments!