Why We Stare At People… And How To Exploit That Phenomenon

I could imagine how they felt. They looked so still, yet uncomfortable. I sensed a look of embarrassment. Something made me focus all my attention on them. I couldn’t help it. As an addicted observer of human behavior, I felt compelled to watch.

Two minutes earlier we pulled into a rest stop on our way to a family event. I stopped to get some drinks and take a break from driving. This is a typical rest area in New Jersey. It consists of one large building with six or seven fast food shops, a convenience store and bathrooms.

I hate these places. Everyone is in a hurry. The lines move like molasses. You can measure the stress level with a Geiger counter. Standing in line at Starbucks I noticed a strange couple. In an instant, an image popped into my head.

Wall Street power couple from NYC, attending some fancy event in New Jersey.

I would guess the man to be in his late fifties. Every strand of his thinning hair sat in its assigned position. He wore a tuxedo without the jacket. The woman appeared younger, maybe in her late forties. She wore a stunning dress and high heel shoes.

I Must Stare

Most travelers passing through on the weekend sport casual wear. That difference made this couple stand out. Something else set them apart. They stood in line calm and composed. Next to them stood a guy wearing sweatpants with a wife beater t-shirt yelling into his phone.

On the other side of the couple stood a family of five. The parents of the family screamed at their kids to get control of themselves. Pull the cameras back a little further and you see all of them standing in line at a Cinnabon.

It made me laugh. A calm and composed power couple at an obscure rest area in New Jersey. They’re surrounded by all the chaos waiting in line. They really wanted their Cinnabon fix.

We call this phenomenon an incongruity. An incongruity is something that is out of place, lacking consistency or incompatible with our expectations. When we face one it forces us to pay attention. The obvious incongruity of this couple among the craziness made me stare.

The Power Of Incongruity

In persuasion, incongruities grab the attention of your audience. A strong incongruity compels your reader or audience to stick around and see how it all plays out. Finding that incongruent story in your brand, business or product generates curiosity. The audience looks at it and thinks 

“No way. I must see what this is all about” 

Once you draw them in, leave the mystery open until they click your call to action. You can do a great job of luring them in with an incongruency. Once you solve the mystery, curiosity dissolves.

Closing the loop on the incongruity should be the reward for clicking on the call to action.

How did things play out with our power couple? I saw them get their Cinnabon order. They seemed quite proud of themselves. Oh, how I wish I could have watched them eat it.

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How To Exploit The Power Of A Near Miss… And Avoid The Lurking Danger

A near miss can give you a marketing bonanza. Done wrong, it destroys your customer relationships.

The art of the near miss may be the best-kept secret in marketing, copywriting and sales. Look close enough and you see examples everywhere in life. Losing in the championship game hurts more than missing the playoffs. Coming in second hurts more than fifth place.

Perhaps the best example, getting four out of five numbers in a lottery drawing. It means the difference between winning ten dollars and a million dollars. Of course, they do this by design. It heightens your urge to play again.

Yesterday, my neighborhood held its annual easter egg hunt. As part of the lure, organizers hide two “golden” eggs. Find a golden egg and you get a special prize. As the hunt came to a close, one of the golden eggs remained elusive. My older son spotted the egg and ran to get it.

A Race To The Finish

Two seconds before he grabbed it, another kid swooped in. His hopes dashed, he started crying. The near miss made it hurt. My other son watched from a distance. He felt a brief bout of sadness and moved on. My son who nearly won felt pain.

The painful reactions of near misses move adults just as much as kids. Sure, we may not cry about these things. They do touch a nerve. It persuades us to play the lottery again. It moves us to despair after our team loses the championship.

Near Miss Marketing

The most common way to integrate near miss marketing is through the use of contests. A contest by itself draws interest. A contest with a lot of almost-wins creates a frenzy. We know from lotteries that when someone gets close to winning it heightens the urge to play again. That same logic works with contest marketing.

Offer a boatload of second place prizes. Your audience feels a greater urge to stick around and compete the next time you hold a contest. Plus, they’re less likely to feel slighted for the wasting their time.

The Payoff

A payoff for those who lose makes your audience feel good. It generates the same feel-good chemicals as a real win. Think of it like getting a trophy just for competing. Now, imagine competing and finding out you wasted your time. That’s what my son experienced in the easter egg hunt.

You know how it feels when your team loses in the championship. Sometimes you work your butt off to compete and get nothing. That kind of near miss results in sadness, frustration, and even anger.

What’s the secret to making this work?

Offer a payoff. It could be low or no cost second place prizes. If your contest is small enough, simple recognition serves as a payoff.

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Winning Friends, Influencing and Persuading. How A Grandmother Left Us Stunned

I slumped into the coffee shop to get my caffeine fix. A woman ahead of me ordered her drink. She’s accompanied by (what appears to be) her daughter and infant grandchild. She got her drink. She began to walk away. Then, she hesitated. She turned around and said to the barista:

Hi, Kathy and Mike (she saw the name tags)This is going to sound corny. My name is Anne. I don’t even like drinking decaf coffee. I come here every afternoon because I love seeing how happy you guys are working together. “

She walked out of the store with her daughter and grandchild. Once out of sight, a guy behind the counter said he almost cried.

What kind of service will she receive the next time she walks in the store? I bet they roll out the red carpet. Do you think anyone will forget her name? Doubtful.

It proves that the best persuasion strategies start with nurturing basic human relationships.

How To Win Friends And Influence People

I don’t know if she teaches a Dale Carnegie class. She seemed like she did. Her few words hit many of those time-tested strategies.

  1. Give honest sincere appreciation
  2. Smile
  3. Make your audience feel important
  4. Do not criticize, condemn or complain
  5. Repeat the person’s name (two out of the three people)
  6. Give praise
  7. Begin in a friendly way
  8. Show genuine interest in other people. Even better, she never said she was interested. She showed it. You can conclude it from her comments.
  9. She made the barista’s feel important

Besides those rules, she did several other things well. She opened with this is going to sound corny. That phrase heightens curiosity. How could you not pay attention at that point? It prepares the listener for what comes next.

We can analyze and dissect things down to the word. Sometimes good persuasion comes down to being someone people want to be around.

A cynic might call this woman a master manipulator.I doubt that. If true, she fooled all of us.

By the way, I am a regular at this coffee spot too. The cashier at the counter, whom I’ve seen for over a year, said this to me:

“What’s your name again? Sorry, I keep forgetting”

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The Magic Writing Formula For Connecting With Your Audience

Sometimes life gives you gifts, little moments of magic in your day that you never expect. Yesterday, as I drove home from doing whatever, I put on a podcast. I looked at the summary before I put it on. I was a bit put off by the length.

“An hour and a half. With this guy, really?”

“If it sucks I can always put on some music.”

I put on the podcast at double speed. I would give it fifteen minutes. If it bores me, I turn it off.

What did I think?

This podcast floored me. I hung on every syllable. (Podcast link is at end of this article)

Sometimes we come across a book, podcast or article that connects with us. It feels like the writer or speaker talks directly to us. It feels like they know us better than we know ourselves.

Yes, what connects with me may not connect with you. We all have different passions and life stories.

Stories that connect share common threads. What if we could replicate those threads with our own writing? Could we create better connections with our audience?

We can. I examined my favorite writers and stories and found repeating themes.

Let’s dive in.


Before you connect, you must build engagement. Your audience needs to dig in. Engagement invests them in your story. These three techniques appear most in these stories.


Reveal something about yourself that most others keep secret. Most people who faced drug addiction in their past avoid making the details public. A successful business man or woman arrested for shoplifting as a teenager prefers to keep that to themselves. The more embarrassing the admission, the more it interests us. The revealing nature of the podcast made it interesting.


Shocking experiences draw us in because of the incongruent nature. Things that do not fit in neatly with our reality create curiosity. Curiosity leads to anticipation. We need to see how it all plays out. We crave closure.


Controversy polarizes people. It creates fans or haters. How do we create controversy? You have two options.

First, take a stand on an issue that polarizes people. Abortion, welfare, civil rights, LGBT are the obvious political issues. If you appeal to a narrower audience you can find polarizing topics within your field. Within the finance industry, you can take a controversial view on an investment practice or disclosure rule. The general public may not care about those issues but those deep within the industry do.

The second option is to take a contrarian view on an issue. Go against a prevailing view. A headline that demands an all out ground war to wipe out terrorist defies most common wisdom. It takes a contrarian view and creates controversy.

A word of warning. Your use of controversy must be authentic. Your audience sniffs out fake controversy and your reputation suffers. The use of fake controversy runs rampant in clickbait articles.

Revealing, shocking and controversy draws us in. They build our interest. They begin the process of connection. Engagement alone, however, fails to create that connection you seek.


Without a struggle, your story feels hollow. Your audience faces struggles. We need to hear about your struggle. How did it make you feel? What did it do to you emotionally? What did you do to overcome it? When you reveal your struggle, you bring yourself down to our level.

“Wow. She faced the same struggle as me. If she can do it, then I can do it too!”

Hiding your struggle gives your audience the impression that you hold some superior power they can never replicate. It puts you out of touch.


Sometimes we read a great book or article and marvel at the insight. It gets our juices flowing. We jump up and down with eager anticipation to put it into action. Then, we get down to business and yell:

“Now what?”


“This is great, but how do I make use of it?”

Always wrap up with a well thought out lesson and a concrete action the reader can take. Sometimes you need to condense your work into a digestible bite. Other times, a summary will do. Here’s how I wrap up this article:

The Connection Checklist

Your story should focus on one of the three connection builders:

  1. Revealing
  2. Shocking
  3. Controversy

To build the connection, include:

  1. Your struggle
  2. A lesson and concrete action

Link to podcast referenced earlier

James Altucher Show — Scott Steindorff

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At Last – The Conversation We Should Have Had Years Ago

My wife and I had a conversation we should have had years ago. See, we’ve been looking to redo our kitchen. We bristled over the cost after we saw it in writing. We knew renovations were expensive. Even our conservative estimates were way off. We looked at our monthly spend and picked out things we can cut back on.

Our cable, internet and phone bill runs about $170 per month.

“What if we got rid of cable?” I asked

“Is there anything we watch anymore besides Game Of Thrones and This Is Us?” she replied

“Not really. It could save us $120 a month.”

A longer discussion ensued. We realized how much money we wasted on cable. We kept it going all these years out of habit.

Bucking The Cord-Cutting

Renew cable? Sure, how could we live without it?

We came to a mutually acceptable decision. After the Game Of Thrones season, we’ll cancel our cable subscription.

Maybe we can get by without it. Maybe we’ll realize how much we miss it. I suspect we’ll get by on Netflix plus some other service like Hulu.

How much more productive will I be on nights and weekends without access to television? We shall see.

What really gets me about the whole cable television thing is how much money we spent all these years.

We’ve been complaining about it for at least ten years.

What made us stick with it?

The Power Of Habit And Complacency

That’s what these cable companies rely on. Self-help gurus’s rant and rave about the power of habit with good reason. Habits power a good portion of our lives.

Combine habit with complacency and breaking free becomes an act of heroism.

Complacency – a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like.

Cable gave us a feeling of complacency. Turning on the television and seeing a choice of hundreds of channels gives a sense of comfort. Yes, I almost never find something worthwhile to watch. Oh, but just having the options makes it all worth it.

The genius and simplicity of the subscription model created the habit of keeping our cable subscription years after it served its purpose.

The limitless options of channels and entertainment created that feeling of complacency. Even when the options lack the quality we seek, it still generates that pleasurable feeling. Combine habit with complacency and you get cable television. That’s how archaic businesses keep their customers long after they’ve gone the route of the dinosaurs.

Familiarity plus comfort breeds complacency. Create that for your own business and improve retention. Please, offer more value than cable tv or you might have your own cord cutters to battle.

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The Hidden Persuasion Lesson You Missed in “Think And Grow Rich”

Each night before bed I make a list of ten interesting things that happened during the day. It could be a conversation with someone. It might be something I read, hear or watch.

On a good day, I get lucky. I experience something weird. One time I found my car with all the windows down and sunroof open. It baffled me for hours. A Google post buried on page five solved the mystery.

I pick one of those events and then write about it. Once I pick an event, I tie into a lesson on persuasion. I do this every day.

I Lost My List

Today, something scary happened. I forgot my list. I didn’t write in my usual notebook. It messed up my routine. This morning I tried to recreate it. I failed. Most of the cool stuff seeped out of my brain as I slept.

Those quirky things that we experience during our otherwise routine days make stories interesting. Without my list, those tidbits of gold disappeared.

That’s why I write them down. We forget things we want to remember. We remember things we prefer to forget.

Do you remember a time you came up with a great idea? You didn’t bother writing it down or making a note of it. An hour later you say to yourself:

“What was that great idea I had? Darn. I should have written it down.”

We all experience that. I seem to get great ideas while I shower. Those ideas escape me a few hours later. It irritates the heck out of me. Somebody needs to invent a note-taking machine for such times.

The Ancient Memory And Persuasion Trick

When I dream up a great idea I try to repeat it often. That keeps it in the forefront of my mind until I jot it down. That’s the key to remembering great ideas.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Any idea, plan, or purpose may be placed in the mind through repetition of thought — Napolean Hill

Repetition helps us remember. It also helps us persuade. That’s the hidden meaning behind Napolean Hill’s famous quote from a century ago.

Here’s the bizarre thing about repetition

Repeating the same thing verbatim backfires. Imagine someone trying to stuff an idea down your throat over and over. That’s how the receiver of your communication interprets repetition.

As a persuader, you take a more subtle approach. Repeat the same idea but use different words. Explain it in a different way. Each time increases familiarity. What we see, hear and feel as familiar we accept as truth.

Changing up your words takes on more importance with the written word. Seeing the exact same phrase multiple times calls attention to what you are doing. Subtlety lets you take advantage of repetition without sounding repetitive.

For a deeper dive into the power of repetition and familiarity, I recommend Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman (pg 62–67 )

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How To Win The World In One Soundbite

I spent the morning watching a debate. It focused on how liberals and conservatives can mend their differences. Persuading someone to change political beliefs makes for a challenging task. That makes it such an interesting case study for an outside observer.

As the debate raged on, it morphed into a predictable pattern. It shifted to a talk on how Trump got elected. Then it turned to a debate on why people follow him despite his flaws.

The debaters dove into specifics, data analysis, trends and a bunch of other stuff that would bore the heck out of you.

Their impressive smarty credentials miss the point. Those things hold some importance, but they miss the big picture.

A Formula To Win The World

]There’s an infinite number of variables that won him the election.

We can, however, look at a broader question. What made him so popular?

What Trump does is much simpler than what our debaters argue about.

Here it is in one soundbite.

He harnessed the anger people felt and assigned the blame to an enemy they could unite against.

Fiery talk show hosts with moonshot ratings do the same thing. They all follow a predictable but effective pattern.

The Talk Show Host Model

They take emotion and put them into words.

The audience feels something that angers them. Often, they cannot articulate that feeling. Sometimes they fear saying it out loud.

Next, they put that feeling into words. That draws attention.

Then, they assign blame to a third party. That creates an “us versus them” dynamic.

Finally, they offer a solution that satisfies the anger. The solution often targets the group they blame for the problem.

How does it look in action?

Here’s an example:

Harness the anger: A large swath of Americans angry about declining standard of living and good jobs.

Put it into words: Political elite gave away America to foreigners. They are out of touch with real Americans.

Assign blame: Blame it on trade deals with China and Mexico. Blame it on illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Offer a simple solution: Build that wall. Border adjustment tax.

All the fact checking in the world fails to make a dent. Sound familiar?

Can I Use This For Good?

Yes, you can. This strategy works against real injustice. It also works for business. In the hands of a good copywriter, it works wonders.

Let’s pretend the customers of your competitor hate their business practices. With no other option, they stick with this evil business.

You can use the same process to harness the anger of your target customers. Find out what angers them about this business.

Put their anger into words.

You’re just a number to the big bad corporate competitor.

Transfer the blame.

They crush smaller competitors by selling cheap imports.

Offer a simple solution.

Our handcrafted widgets delivered in 24 hours. Lifetime guarantee.

Here’s the catch. This approach wins fans. You may win diehard fans.

It also wins haters and lots of them.

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This Kind Of Testimonial Sends Prospects Running For The Exits

A woman seated next to me chimed into a conversation with a friend.

“I couldn’t help overhear. Did you say you were working with “ABC” kitchen designers?”

“Yes, we just had our consultation. Why? Have you used them?” I asked

“No. We are considering them but I wanted to hear some feedback first.”

That brief exchange started a discussion about contractors in our area. As luck would have it, she had experience with another contractor we interviewed.

She blasted them for the dismal experience. Based on her story we pulled them from consideration.

It shows you the power of social proof. I never met this woman before. Our kids just happened to attend the same birthday party.

This is not the usual fake social proof you see on the internet. 

“Dude. You gotta buy this. Mind blowing. It’s so awesome.”

 The Story That Had Me Running For The Exits

This was a punch in the gut kind of social proof. Here’s a recap of her experience. I took notes after she told me. 

We ordered windows from them. They came and did measurements. Somehow, they ordered the wrong sizes. They did not realize it until they removed three of our windows. Our street facing first floor had to be boarded up for three weeks while we waited for the right size to arrive. It looked like a condemned house from the street. I was in tears.”

How can you ignore a story like that? See how she mentioned the measurements and ordering of the wrong sizes? Then, she mentioned three windows removed. The specificity makes it sound plausible.

It also packs emotion. When she mentioned the “street facing first floor boarded up,” I cringed to think how I would feel in that situation. She wrapped up by telling me she was in tears. A picture of her experience formed in my head. I could identify with that.

Maybe She Lied

For all I know, this woman lied through her teeth. Maybe she had an unrelated personal vendetta against this contractor. Humans, for the most part, trust each other until we have a reason to distrust. I take her at her word. It made me take action.

Her social proof caused a negative reaction.

Positive social proof can be just as powerful.

Would you benefit from a glowing testimonial? Pay attention to this.

How To Ask For Testimonials

When you ask for testimonials from your happy customers, make sure it includes specifics. It makes your proof more plausible.

Ask them to include how they felt when it ended. A story you transcribe from them works best.

It tells prospects that they can expect the same results. It tells them indirectly as opposed to you making a direct claim. A conclusion your prospect makes herself packs more power than you telling her what to believe. 

Finally, ask for feedback. Do not fear it. We like recommending others who serve us well. It makes us feel good to exert that kind of influence. 

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How To Eliminate “Guessing” From Your Marketing Messages

We strolled into a local toy store on a chilly afternoon. We needed to buy a birthday gift for a seven-year-old.  As we looked around the store, the cashier answered the phone. I could not help but overhear him speak.

Oh, my god. Are you okay? Do you need help?”

– pause –

“Let me speak to Jane [store owner]. She needs to know about this.”

Based on that snippet, what do you think happened?

I jumped to my own conclusion. I assumed a kid suffered some bad experience with a toy they got from the store.

“Did a kid swallow a small piece of a toy?

“Did something malfunction and injure a kid? Now the parent is calling to complain…”

These thoughts ran through my head while I tried to figure out what happened.

The clerk ran into the back of the store. I assume he wanted privacy. That led to further speculation.

“Maybe it’s more serious than I thought. Could there be a real emergency here?”

The Guessing Game

Throughout this two minute scene, I did something all too common. This is something your readers do when they read your material.

They jump to conclusions based on limited information. In other words, they guess.

Sometimes they guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong.

The best approach lies with providing your audience the right information to limit the room for error.

Lucky for us, we have three tools that prevent your audience from making false conclusions.


Using specifics prevents your audience from drawing their own conclusions. Compare these two messages:

Our HR service saves you tons of cash

Our payroll automation tool saves you $12 per employee

The second one tells you the type of service. It also tells you exactly how much you save. Zero guesswork.


Something concrete feels real. You feel it in the senses. Compare these two statements

Finding something hard in your sandwich

Biting into a tuna sandwich and cutting your gums on a fingernail clipping

Did you cringe a bit when you read the second sentence? You feel it in your gut. The first one triggers no emotion.

Use Simple Language

Keep your writing at a sixth-grade level. Use words that any audience understands. Use big words and your audience misinterprets. Or, it frustrates them enough to give up. Either way you lose.

At Last, The Emergency Revealed

My wife and I finished our shopping. Before we left, I got to the bottom of the mysterious phone call. Another employee got stuck in an elevator in the building. The fire department came to get her out. That’s why the clerk responded with alarm.

Do you see how faulty we are at predicting things? That’s why we cannot leave it up to our audience to figure it out themselves. Specifics, concreteness and simple language ensure your audience concludes what you desire.

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The Lazy Approach To Sales And Marketing

It’s Friday night after a long week. My wife and I feel lazy. Cooking a meal for a family of four seems like such a chore today. Then there’s the cleanup. Neither of us has the patience.

How do parents like us battle that?

We go out for dinner.

On most nights we go through the effort of cooking at home. Sometimes laziness gets the better of us. We all experience days like that.

Feeling lazy hits because of our hardwired need to conserve energy.

That explains why you see most sales and marketing messages claim easy solutions.  Our desire to conserve energy makes the lazy or easy option so appealing.

Does that mean all our messaging should stress fast and easy? Not so fast.

It depends on this one factor:

Who are you targeting with your message?.

The True Expert

The more expert your prospect, the less likely they are to believe that fast and easy is the answer. Experts put a lot of time and effort into acquiring expertise. They may find it insulting that some push button solution could equalize their hard fought knowledge.

The true expert represents a small segment of any market. Crafting a fast and easy solution can work only if a base level of expertise already exists. In other words, it’s fast and easy only for experts.

The Pretend Expert

“A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” – Alexander Pope, 1709

Here, you face a prospect who holds a small bit of knowledge and now thinks he’s an expert. Maybe he read a book on investing and now thinks of himself as a pro stock trader.

The pretend expert put in a modest amount of time to acquire his knowledge. He thinks he knows all there is to know. The fast and easy solution works on him because he became an expert fast and easy.  He does not know what he does not know.

When I first learned about persuasion I thought I would need a few books and that would be it. I was a pretend expert. I kept up my learning and one thing became clear. The finish line moved further and further away. I moved into the next stage.

The Self-Aware Novice

Unlike the pretend expert, the self-aware novice knows he lacks expertise. He may hold a small bit of knowledge like the pretend expert. He realizes, however, his level of knowledge barely scratches the surface. These folks are skeptics when it comes to lazy solutions. They hold a different mindset. Reaching expertise requires hard fought, time-consuming effort. The lazy, fast and easy approach signals their bullshit detector.

The Truth About Every Market

Most of us like to believe we are either true experts or self-aware novices in everything. We scoff at those pretend experts we see blabbing away at parties. Little do we realize, we also play the role of pretend expert without knowing it.

The truth is, most of us are capable of becoming self-aware novices and true experts. Most of us refuse to put in the effort to get there. That explains why salespeople and marketers turn to fast and easy messaging so often. It also explains why these approaches work so well.


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