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There is sooooooo much written about how to get people’s attention online — from hacks and buzzwords to algorithms and popups and lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

But what if you could somehow get somebody’s attention in a way that makes them feel good and even gets their brain to convince them that you’re a pretty cool person and they should listen to you … without them really realizing what’s going on?

For that, you’ll need to hijack an elephant.

Ready for me to lay some science on you?

So our brains can very generally be divided into two sections: the more emotional, gut instinct side, and the rational, logical side. While we tend to think of the logical side as being in charge (and it can direct the emotional side), the emotional side is actually much more powerful.

Think about these two sides using Chip and Dan Heath’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider. The elephant is strong, but it can be guided by the rider. The rider is smaller, and ultimately at the mercy of the elephant, but it can give it purpose and direction.

What’s really interesting is that if you get the elephant part of your brain on board with something, then the rider will convince itself that actually, that’s what it wanted anyway.

This happens to all of us. Just think about the last time you were trying to form a habit. Maybe you were trying to start exercising every day. It all goes well for a while, but then that one day comes where you think, “You know what? It’s been a hard week. I don’t feel like doing this. Hell, I deserve a break! And if I take a break today, that means I’ll be even better tomorrow, so actually, I’m doing what’s best.”

When that feeling side of you decides on something, the rational one has no choice but to go along for the ride, so it will convince itself that actually, that’s what it wanted anyway.

Bottom line: if you can hijack the elephant, you’ve got the rider pretty much in the bag. And that means that if you grab someone emotionally right from the start with your writing, they will naturally, unconsciously convince themselves that they want to read you and pay attention to what you’re saying.

Which is all kinds of cool — just think about the implications that has for your blog posts, not to mention your sales copy! You’re no longer in the position of begging people to pay attention to you and convincing them that you’re saying cool stuff, they’re doing it for you without even really consciously realizing it.

So how do you actually hijack an elephant? You buy in with novelty. You stay in with empathy.

So, a little bit more science for you. When your brain comes across something that’s surprising, new, or in any way a mystery, it naturally focuses on that. (For my fellow neuroscience nerds, you get a big dose of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.)

This is because way back when, something that was new or surprising more likely than not wanted to eat you — so although there are no longer predators stalking us on the daily, your brain still reacts with the same speed and focus as though there were.

So what does this look like practically?

I am NOT talking about things like pop up ads and bait-and-switch scenarios. While those will give you an small reaction, most of us are way savvy to this by now, and so we no longer get the charge off of it like we used to. So forget the low end stuff, and ship good product like:

Words you don’t normally see together, or phrases in unusual places. For instance, the help button on Acuity doesn’t say “Help”, it alternates between funny sayings like: “Admitting it. I need help!”, “Pants on fire!”, and “Need help? Call Ghostbusters. (Just kidding.)”

The beginning to an interesting story. For example, I wrote an email for a client a while back started with ,“7 years ago, I nearly found myself facedown in an open abdomen.”

A seemingly contradictory statement. One of my clients teaches people who hate selling how to be good at it. I wrote her a bio that started with, “I’m Leigh Ashton, and I will not teach you how to be a salesperson.”

A truth that’s typically left unspoken. For example: “For the no-pants Skypers. The Netflix binge champions. The marathon nappers. Your undies await.”

This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but it’s more than enough to get you started.

But, as you know, it’s not enough just to get that initial attention — you need people to stick around.

And that’s where the empathy comes in. You want to implicitly reward people for reading your stuff, so you use what you know about them (hint: it should be pretty much everything) to follow up with content that you know is going to connect with them specifically.

Since the way you do this is unique to the audience, it’s hard to give step by step advice on, but the first step here is really getting a handle on who your people are. That’s why this makes up a huge chunk of the work I do with my 1:1 clients, because if you’re not 100% sure who you’re writing to, then it’s all going to be guesswork.

Once you do know them inside out and upside down, you want to think about things you can say to them that show them that you really get them. For instance, with my client who trains small business owners to be better at sales, I was able to get the surprise and the empathy all into that one sentence. Readers have two responses pretty much simultaneously:

“I won’t teach you how to be a salesperson” — Say what? I thought you were a sales consultant? Isn’t that what you do?


“I won’t teach you be a salesperson” — Oh thank God, I fucking hate salespeople.

The whole point is to show them that you really get them. Because once you’re in that “one of us” tribe in someone’s brain, they are waaaaaaay more receptive to what you have to say.

So remember, surprise + empathy = interested elephants, and interested elephants = engaged rider.

And when you’ve got an interested elephant and an engaged rider? That’s when you’ve got their attention for good.