The poker game that led to the first major victory of the Revolutionary War
On December 25, 1776, General George Washington quietly crossed the Delaware River with his troops. Their destination: Trenton, N.J.
The Hessian regiments were camped in and around the Trenton area. That night they were attacked by Washington and the American Continental Army. On December 26, 1776, the colonists had won their first major victory of the Revolutionary War.
The most surprising fact of the whole event?
The battle might have had a completely different outcome if it wasn’t for one thing: a poker game.
You see, the Hessians had decided to focus that night on the Christmas holiday. So, instead of being on their guard, they were celebrating.
You can’t blame them. It was Christmas, right? But that decision cost them the battle and many people’s lives.
Now how was a poker game to blame?
Well, on that fateful Christmas night, their commander, Colonel Johann Rall, was busy playing cards at the home of a Trenton merchant by the name of Abraham Hunt. While playing, Rall was handed a note from a local loyalist who happened to have seen Washington’s forces gathering.
Supposedly, the loyalist was denied an audience with the commander, so he wrote his message on a piece of paper.
When Commander Rall received the note, he was so preoccupied with the game that he just put it in his pocket. That would prove to be a fatal mistake for Rall — both personally and for his troops. When his troops began firing in an attempt to stop Washington and his army, Commander Rall was still playing poker. And later, as he was leading his troops in retreat from the battle of Trenton, Rall was struck by a musket ball and soon afterwards died from his injuries.
And what of that note that warned of the impending attack?
It was later found on his lifeless body in the last place he put it: his coat pocket.
Create content that demands attention
Before you judge Rall too harshly, you need to realize something: You do the same thing.
And even worse, your prospects and customers do this, too.
You know that important content you’ve spent so much time creating for them? The content that could really help your prospects? The content that could encourage them to cross the line and purchase from you?
There is a high chance that, just like Commander Rall, they probably won’t see your message. They’ll be too preoccupied with something else. Something important, or maybe something trivial. It doesn’t matter what it is. Either way, they’ll never get your message.
What’s the culprit in this deficit of attention? It’s something called the reticular activating system (RAS). Below, I’ll explain more about RAS, but it’s important to realize that it’s not just the source of inattention — it’s also your only hope of getting through to your prospects.
RAS: The reason you notice your new car everywhere
How do I know that you and your prospects have the same problem Commander Rall had?
There are so many stimuli coming at us every moment; so many things that happen every day, that we can’t possibly focus on everything. If we did, we’d go crazy!
Thankfully, our brains are equipped with something called the reticular activating system. Its purpose? It helps us focus on only certain things, and filter out the rest.
The classic example that is used is the example of buying a new car. Have you ever noticed that when you buy a new car you suddenly notice that same car everywhere? You feel like, “Man, I must be a trendsetter! Everyone’s copying me.”
Did the car you bought somehow become popular just after you bought it?
Sorry to disappoint you, but you’re not that influential (yet). What’s happening is just an example of your RAS at work. Your RAS used to ignore those things (new cars) when you thought they weren’t important. But as soon as you cared about those things, you suddenly saw what was always there!
You see, when it comes to getting attention, the reticular activating system can be your friend or your foe. If you are dubbed “worthy” by the RAS and given a green light, then you’re in. If you’re dubbed “unworthy,” then you can keep on knocking, but you can’t come in.
How to harness the power of the reticular activating system
How can we ensure that our important content messages make it past the RAS and are actually seen by our prospects and customers? Here are six suggestions:
1. Use intriguing and provocative titles
We live in an age where “busy” is the new normal. People are overwhelmed, and their attention spans are shrinking. That means people are skimming their inboxes, skimming the news headlines, etc. And what stops them and causes their RAS to take notice? Intriguing and provocative titles.
I’m sure you’ve read that a simple change in a title can have dramatic results. That’s because one title bores the RAS and the other is a welcome friend. That’s why you must choose your titles wisely. For more info, check out this post by Heidi Cohen, “Content Marketing Checklist: 13 Things You Must Do Before You Publish Content,” or this post by Beth Fox, “7 Ways to Write Eye-Popping Headlines.”
2. Use stories
Notice how I captured your attention at the beginning of this post and was able to get your reticular activating system’s approval? I used a story. And not just any story. A story filled with drama, suspense and surprise; a story I then tied to you and your prospects.
The RAS loves a good story. It will almost always let a good story through its gates to your prospects’ minds. For more info on how to create powerful stories, check out this post by Manya Chylinski, “How to Create More Powerful Content Marketing Stories.”
3. Attach your content to things that have already made it past the RAS
As I mentioned recently in a blog post, Robert Collier famously said, “You want to enter a conversation that’s already existing in your prospects’ minds.” With so much going on nowadays and so many distractions, any way you can break through the static is a huge benefit for you. For that reason, you need to do your best to attach your content to things that your prospects’ RAS has already let through. Doing this is like giving you — and your product or service — a little “hook” to hang on in someone’s mind. One way to do this is to tie your content to current trends, people in the news, etc.
4. Attach your content to things that your prospects and customers really care about
This idea is closely related to the last, but has a subtle and important difference. Remember the examples of the new car? This item made it through your RAS, because it was suddenly relevant and important to you. It wasn’t because it was a current “conversation” that existed in your mind — it was because it was now a current passion or desire that existed in your heart. You need to learn to connect the dots between your prospects’ passions and your content. For example, I did this by making sure to tie the topic of this post to your desire to be paid attention to. That’s why your RAS let me through.
5. Use the power of the surprise and the unexpected
Boring or common things will be ignored by the RAS — it has too much information and stimuli bombarding it constantly to even pay attention to boring.
You want to make sure your content avoids the “boring” category, and one surefire way to do this is to add an element of surprise or the unexpected. If your content surprises the RAS, then you will be allowed in. I used the element of surprise right after I told the Rall story — I waited until you judged the error that Commander Rall made and then I surprised you by telling you that you and your prospects do the same thing.
For more info on this, check out this post by David Rossiter, “Brand Storytelling Lessons You Can Steal from Hollywood.”
6. Use the power of anticipation
Most people never think about the almost invisible impact that anticipation has on the content we present.
Let me explain what I mean by using an example I’ve used in the past: Seth Godin. Seth Godin is one of my favorite authors and bloggers. Like all of us, Seth has some days when his content is better than other days. But something unexpected happens even when Seth writes one of his “average” posts: It still gets tweeted and shared by a bazillion people. Does this happen because it was really such an awesome post? No. It was just average. But because Seth is a well-known and respected industry expert who has written many highly regarded posts, even the average post can carry with it a level of anticipation and expectation that readers tend to view more favorably than those that others may write.
The “power of anticipation” allows Seth’s content to bust through people’s RAS. You can use this power of anticipation by doing your best to consistently post quality content. That’s what Seth did. But you also need to do some other things. You need to do everything you can to get your content validated by other respected people in your industry, as well as to get people who think highly of your content to share their opinion with others. Seth does both of these things, and his results should speak for themselves.
If the content message you are working on is important, then (for the sake of your prospects and your own business) you can’t just hope it will make it through the clutter. Understanding the reticular activating system and how to break through it is your greatest hope. Otherwise all your efforts might end up causing your business to be just another casualty on the battlefield.
What other ways do you use or have you seen used to break through the RAS? Post your answers in the comments section.
Want more content marketing inspiration? Download our ultimate eBook with 100 content marketing examples.