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Be Provocative


When you want to get--and especially keep--someone's attention, what's your competition? What else could they choose to focus on at any given moment? The belief that we have 100% conscious control over what we pay attention to is a myth. The belief that users can and will choose to pay attention to our message/ad/docs/product/lesson, etc. is a mistake. So what can we do to up the odds of getting and keeping attention?

I just returned from two weekends of intense horse/human training, including the annual Parelli conference, and you'll just have to suffer through several posts in which I map everything into some all-I-needed-to-know-I-learned-from-my-horse principle. Starting with this post. At the first clinic, master trainer David Lichman said of our horse-human relationships:

"The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in their environment."

If we want our users (members, guests, students, potential customers, kids, co-workers, etc.) to pay attention, we have to be provocative. We can moan all we want about how the responsible person should pay attention to what's important rather than what's compelling. But it's not about responsibility or maturity. It's not even about interest. It's about the brain.

Remember, the brain and the conscious mind don't always see neuron-to-neuron. The brain pays attention to survival of the species. No matter what the mind wants! If you want the mind's attention, you can't ignore the brain. In other words, you can't assume that users will pay attention to what you say even when they're genuinely interested. Unless, that is, you throw a bone to the brain as well. Or trick it.

So this isn't about having to bribe people into paying attention by sexing things up with graphics, sound, or shock. This is about helping the mind and the brain agree on what's worth paying attention to. And if you want it to be you, then you better be the most provocative and interesting thing in their environment.

With horses, there's not as much competition. There's no HorseBox 360 or PonyMail. No Horse 2.0. No PonyMeme. Yet it's still a battle to be more compelling than the grass, the wind, a plastic bag, other horses (especially), playing the whoever-moves-their-feet-first-loses game with me, etc. And as smart and complex as my [fabulous Icelandic] horses are, they're still way easier to interest than a human.

Being Provocative

Provocation is in the eye of the provoked, obviously, so there's no clear formula. But there's plenty we can try, depending on the circumstances, including:

* Be Visual
Pictures are more important to the brain than words, and unless you've already got their attention and are a good enough writer to paint pictures in their head, you'll do better with visuals. The more stimulating the better. Even graphs and charts are a huge help... it doesn't have to be pictures of naked women (although that would work, of course. Just try to get past a rack of men's magazines (without the "protective covers") without at least a glance. Your brain can't help it, so let yourself off the hook ; )

* Be Different--Break Patterns and Expectations
As long as we're doing what everyone else is doing (or what we have always done), the brain can relax and think, "Nothing new here... whew... what a relief, that means I can now go back to scanning for something that is". Ways to be different include doing the opposite of what you normally do, or doing something expected in a different domain, but which is wildly unique in yours.

* Be Daring
You know the story on this one--being safe is often incompatible with being provocative.

* Change Things Regularly
This is about continually breaking your own patterns. Consistently shaking things up whether it's look and feel of your website to the product itself. (Obviously the definition of "regularly" and "things" varies dramatically depending on the type of product or service. MySpace can change daily to the delight of its core audience, while a financial app better keep its UI stable for a much longer time and find something else to change regularly (like the website, tutorial style, or online forums).

* Inspire Curiosity
Humans often find puzzles and even questions irresistible. Just try to walk by a TV playing a quiz show and not think about the answer to the question you heard walking by. How many times have you watched to the end of a movie you didn't particularly like, just because you had to find out how the story ends? Our legacy brains love curiosity because it usually means more learning. (FYI - my horse finds orange traffic cones irresistible)

* Pose a Challenge
The level and nature of the challenge work only if they're within boundaries that work for your audience, of course. Ask me to solve a calculus problem and I'll keep on walking. Ask my co-author Bert, and he'll find it impossible to do anything else but work on it.

* Be Controversial and Committed
Take a stand. Mediocrity is not a formula for holding attention.

* Be Fun
Remember, brains love fun because fun=play, and play=practicing-to-survive. (And as we've said many times here, fun does not have to mean funny. Chess can be fun but isn't funny. Except when I play.)

* Be Stimulating. Be Exciting. Be Seductive
Keep in mind that seduction does not have to mean sexual. A good storyteller can seduce me into sticking with the story. A good teacher can seduce me into learning. A good software app can seduce me into getting better and better.

* Help them have Hi-Res Experiences
This gets back to the notion of being-better-is-better. The more your users know and can do, the higher resolution experience they have. Whatever you can do to give them more expertise will help keep them interested in wanting to know and do more. But they need to be up the skill curve a ways before this really kicks in, so we must do whatever we can to help get new users past the rough spots (i.e. the "suck threshold").

* ???
Your turn. What are your ideas for how we (or you) can be more provocative? Who's doing a good job? Who is not?

(Note: I'm currently in the middle of a difficult multi-country work trip in Europe, so I'm having a tough time getting online. I apologize for not responding to your comments here recently, but they're HUGELY motivating for me, so... thanks : )

Posted by Kathy on September 13, 2006 | Permalink


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» Agent Provocateur from Association Inc.
The secret is to be more provocative and interesting than anything else in [the] environment. More required reading from the ever-captivating Kathy Sierra. ... [Read More]

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To answer your question Kathy - too few people are being provocative, be that in business or in the creative world. Those that are, get noticed. So my prescription would be to say what you think (as opposed to what you think people want to hear). Even if they disagree, they will pay attention and one hopes engage with you (but they'll still be thinking of that jerk Bob). Be emotional.

Posted by: John Dodds | Sep 13, 2006 12:16:05 PM

P.S. It's a bit old hat now, but Simon Cowell was a provocateur. He said what he felt and initially people were outraged, but everyone paid attention and gradually those who had been affronted came round to realising that he was being honest and accurate which are the other two key ingredients to successful provocation.

Posted by: John Dodds | Sep 13, 2006 12:22:14 PM

Timing is also key. If your trying to accomplish a goal and not just "be provocative" you'll need to be aware of the circumstances and have a clear measure of the situation in order to apply the right combination of provocative behaviour. Being provocative at the wrong time or in the wrong way can work against you. I know a few people that get attention, say what they want, and say it any time they want. While they are certainly noticed, they are more likely thought of as that a**hole Bob. You'll be remembered, but not the way most of us would want.

Posted by: Earl Moore | Sep 13, 2006 12:39:27 PM

Well duh! Be Passionate :) In a world where people are too busy to care making the time to take the time can say more than words can.

Provocative could be felt to be aggressive, provoking the primal defensive reactions, not good. What's great is that to be provocative without being aggressive means taking the time to listen, to watch, to care(?) and to find the habitual unthinking patterns then interrupt them in ways that enables us to notice things that didn't register on our radar. "Hmm, that's funny" - didn't somebody say that was the moment of insight?

Posted by: ken | Sep 13, 2006 1:09:28 PM

Really interesting post - except at the end.

"Hi-Res Experiences". Just sounds like the buzzword of the month...Ten years ago I worked for a company whose mission statement included "providing a total quality experience".

"???". When bloggers ask for comments, it's like they are just seeking affirmation. There wouldn't be a comment area if you didn't want readers to comment. People are moved to read and comment because your posts are interesting and well thought out, not because you ask them to comment.

But the the rest of the post was very helpful.


Posted by: daddydoodaa | Sep 13, 2006 1:10:35 PM


What was the rest of the article about?

Posted by: Doug Karr | Sep 13, 2006 1:23:50 PM

This post connects well with a book I am currently reading, The Economics of Attention by Richard Lanman.

Posted by: leigh | Sep 13, 2006 2:09:34 PM

Very provacative article. You got us to read to the end. Nicely done.

I always liked the sequence Awareness-Attention-Action from The Attention Economy. So true...without this "provacativeness" everything else fades into the background.

There is a lot to learn from animal behaviorism that applies in business. I've always wanted to attend one of those Parelli Conferences...glad to hear it was good. And look forward to hearing more about it.

Posted by: Frank Roche | Sep 13, 2006 2:12:19 PM

I also enjoy the Neuromarketing (the cognitive science of "selling") Blog. A recent post mirrors what Kathy says:

A little while later, though, I was reading an interesting article on the neuroscience of attention, i.e., what “paying attention” means from a brain activity standpoint. In daily life, people are presented with lots of inputs - people talking to them, broadcast media, things happening around them, etc. , and only a small portion of that is actively processed by the brain. (We’ll cover some of this work in another post.) Clearly, attention is a key part of the marketer’s task; if the message is lost in the cacophony of background noise, the decision-making process will never come into play at all.

Posted by: Kathleen Fasanella | Sep 13, 2006 4:30:41 PM

There's something that you've written about before that should go onto the list:
Peer group pressure

If you feel like you're part of a group based around a particular "thing", then that can be a strong motivating influence to keep current with that thing.
For example, there were reports of people playing the game Everquest for hours on end just so they could maintain their position (success) within that community.
While that's a fairly extreme example, other products can generate a similar compulsion.
eg. If you're part of a clique based on Java (or Ruby, or ) - wild horses (no pun intended) wouldn't be able to stop you from getting the latest and the greatest as soon as it's released for fear of not being able to keep up with the rest of the clique.

But then I guess that's another of the primal motivators when you scratch the surface anyway. :-)

Posted by: omni | Sep 13, 2006 5:48:38 PM

Great post. My addition:

Be genuine. Come from the heart.

Posted by: Fel | Sep 13, 2006 7:26:51 PM

Awesome post!

Well, I think, perhaps surprisingly, that once you are provocative you have to be provocative. Capture user attention and then to hold on to it you have to keep on coming up with right stuff.

But here is what is really tricky - combining provocative things with consistency. Not only you need to be consitently provocative, you need to be consistent. And that is pretty hard.


Posted by: Alex Iskold | Sep 14, 2006 12:13:15 AM

You're reading my mind again!!

Posted by: lb | Sep 14, 2006 2:02:29 AM


Having studied various expert provocateurs, and being one for a living, one of the points you mentioned here hints at what I think is the real skill in being provocative.

"Change things regularly - breaking your own patterns" This pattern breaking behaviour is what trains you to observe, and then interrupt patterns _just_ enough to change, but not destroy them. As humans we are comfortable with what is familiar, but we learn by what's different.

If you are observant enough to notice the patterns, you can poke and prod at the _edges_ of the pattern and provoke, challenge and interest much more. At the edges we can both be comfortable with the familiar, and at the same time learn by what's different.

Posted by: Michael Vanderdonk | Sep 14, 2006 2:05:26 AM

Have a missing element. Counter-intuitive but true.

Gestalt theory says that as humans, we search to fill in gaps. If you have a missing piece of information that's not critical to the message/ad/docs/product/lesson, you can reall get someone's attention.

Take a look at "Lost", the TV show. There's a lot missing from what we know, and it's spawned entire online communities who are trying to puzzle things out.

This is different from Pose a Challenge, and is closer to Inspire Curiosity. "We've shown you five ways to do this procedure, but there's one more. Can you figure it out based on the information in the previous section?"

Posted by: Jonathan Cohen | Sep 14, 2006 9:50:36 AM

Hi Kathy,
You got my attentention today at the European RailsConf! Your presentation was really inspiring. I didn't want to miss a word of it, you kept me totally engaged.

You used the tactics you mentioned in the blogposts to great effect: the whole room seemed enchanted by your presentation. A nice practical demonstration of the theory you give in the post.

Thanks again for reigniting the passion in me to make a change in this world by showing how we can build software that brings/keeps people in a state flow and thereby makes more happy people :)

Posted by: Martin Hietkamp | Sep 14, 2006 1:21:49 PM

I like omni's comment: "Peer Group Pressure."

BE OVER-THE-TOP. Be the most welcoming, the most pseudo-fresh, the most crazy, the most fast-talking, the nicest, the most goofy person they've ever met. (I go for this with kids of my friends).

BE ENTHUSIASTIC. Who doesn't say this? That enthusiasm is they key top most of life's success. Many do: Samuel Smiles, Napoleon Hill, Jerry Valley the hypnotist.

Get music involved with you. Get good food involved. Get jokes involved. Great Book Suggestions coming from you. Great website recs. Great personal recs.

Posted by: Senia | Sep 14, 2006 5:42:09 PM

Once again, Kathy, the parallel to education in your thinking about users jumps out. Your list is a perfect one to guide a teacher who is trying to get a student to engage some knowledge. Alas, the kids of our times are languishing in an environment mostly described by the opposites of your list. I've hit that a lick here:

Posted by: Judy Breck | Sep 15, 2006 6:07:19 AM

What is mind and where is it located in our body ?. Do animals like dogs and cats have mind ?

Posted by: krammk | Sep 15, 2006 3:35:38 PM

Sounds like an extension of Shannon's theories on information as a function of surprise.

BTW, Kathy - a friend of mine is at the Parelli camp for 6 weeks - she just finished her first two weeks there. Her name is Ginny and her horse's name is Roscoe in case you ran across them.

Posted by: Anna Martelli Ravenscroft | Sep 15, 2006 8:54:19 PM

Creative Provacateurs: Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Madonna

A Provacateur in a class by himself: President George W. Bush. Just listen to him for a few minutes and think about how quickly you start talking back to what he's saying. (Either by agreeing or disagreeing.)

Posted by: Mary Warner | Sep 15, 2006 10:11:15 PM

As your educational teacher-reader you have also hit the nail on the head as to why One out of every 5 kids is not graduating.

In a world of adults that want engagement, I wonder why so many adults feel like that students should be forced to sit with pen and paper for 6 hours a day. In a world of video, internet, cell phones, and every technological innovation we can dream of, we have the greatest educational engagement tools available to us in history.

Of course, we can never forget that the number one tool of engagement is a person (or teacher) who is excited (Yes, passionate) and energetic. It is true for teachers and for life.

By helping kids find and do what they are passionate about, perhaps we can have more passionate adults and not mind-numbed robots who hate their jobs.

It is time for an educational revolution in this country as we reinvent education to be more exciting and engaging to students. Right now, public education has tested the life out of itself. I teach at a private school where we only test once a year but remain in the 90th percentile in every subject and every grade. We are given the freedom to innovate in our classrooms.

If I had one wish for my public school counterparts whom I respect and admire, it would be for them to be allowed to truly engage in provocative teaching in their classroom. I have one friend in the public system here who is only allowed to teach directly out of one workbook and is restricted from doing anything else. We have great teachers everywhere, but a system that scripts the teaching out of teaching. A bored teacher reading aloud from a script is rarely if ever going to be provacative.

And we wonder why people who come out of such a system have a difficult time being provocative themselves!

This a great post. It is applicable to many fields including mine.

Posted by: Vicki Davis | Sep 16, 2006 8:16:38 AM

BE.., BE.., BE.., BE.., BE.., BE.....BE this BE that,
how should one keep count of all of them , FORGET all the BEs , unless you want to be a copycat, just be a good pal ;)

Posted by: ziemek | Sep 21, 2006 12:41:13 AM

No question on the ways to be Provacative, but in traditional corporate culture it's hard to do most of these things without getting negative attention.

But I guess that's what vanguards do :)


And I'm with Doug, 34%? For guys there's a lot things competing for attention, "Desperate Housewives" does not make the cut...

Posted by: Taylor | Sep 25, 2006 12:50:11 PM

An example is worth a thousand words...

Posted by: Robin Mulkers | Sep 29, 2006 2:11:34 AM

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