Before a person can read your book, they need to buy it, and before they can buy it, they need to know it exists. If you want them to know it exists, you must attract their attention.
So how do you get someone’s attention?
To find out, I interviewed a master attention-getter, James L. Rubart. Jim is a Christie Hall of Fame, bestselling author, and he’s the former host of the Novel Marketing podcast.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: So, Jim, how do you get someone’s attention?
James L. Rubart (Jim): I’ll tell you a story that illustrates how to shock, surprise, and delight someone, and then we’ll talk about the details of the Broca area of the brain.
Before I opened my own ad agency, I sold radio advertising in Seattle. One day, my phone rang—I didn’t have caller ID back then—and, for some reason, when I answered my phone, I said, “Domino’s Pizza, can I help you?”
On the other end of the line was a client of mine. She wasn’t exactly the warmest personality. We always got along fine, but she was pretty stoic and close to the vest. But without missing a beat, she said, “Yeah, I’d like to order a large pepperoni pizza. I need it by 12:30. Thank you very much,” and we laughed.
After we got off the phone, I called Domino’s and ordered a large pepperoni pizza, and I had it delivered to the agency. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I got this massive ad buy from her agency for my radio station a few days later.
With that phone call, I surprised, shocked, and delighted the Broca area of her brain.
Broca’s area of the brain is directly behind the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is where we make decisions and choose to take action or not. Everything we see and hear passes through Broca before it gets to the prefrontal cortex.
The Broca area of the brain was named for Dr. Paul Broca. He was a medical doctor and a scientist who discovered this area and its function in 1861.
Broca’s area of the brain is like the filter or the bouncer of the brain. It filters out information that’s not surprising, provocative, or entertaining.
As authors, if we’re not surprising, entertaining, or provoking the Broca area of our readers’ brains, we won’t get through the filter to the prefrontal cortex, where readers take action. That means readers won’t remember us. We’re not going to stand out, and we will fail to get their attention.
Thomas: Imagine sitting in a crowded restaurant talking to your friend across the table. Broca’s area of the brain filters out all the other voices in the restaurant so that you can hear the person sitting across from you. It’s a remarkable part of your brain function. Training a computer to filter out all but one voice is very difficult.
Now, imagine that while you’re visiting, you hear shouting. Because Broca’s area monitors activity in the room, even though you’re hearing the person across the table, you’re not listening to them anymore. You hear the shouting, and you’re on alert. Is this dangerous? Is this a threat?
When you look towards the commotion, you realize someone spilled coffee on themselves. They’re standing and mopping up coffee. The shouting shocked Broca and got your attention. Then you decided that you didn’t need to do anything because all was being taken care of.
On the other hand, maybe the shouting signals a threat. Maybe the restaurant is being robbed. You don’t know, so the Broca area of your brain monitors for the thing that doesn’t fit the pattern.
If you line up 100 pencils side by side, but you leave one slightly misaligned or sticking up above the rest, Broca is shocked into paying attention to that one pencil.
Jim: That’s the reticular activator. It goes into action when you buy a car, and then you suddenly start noticing your car is everywhere, whereas before, you’d never noticed that make and model.
Thomas: In your reader’s brain, Broca is filtering you out. Most of the time, Broca is not your friend. It’s actually your biggest obstacle. If you can overcome that filter, you can win their attention, and suddenly you’ve earned the right to tell them about your book.
So how does an author get a reader’s attention?
Jim: I went to my first writer’s conference in 2006. It was the Mount Hermon Conference, and I had a meeting with Mick Silva. The meeting went well, and I felt like we had a connection, so I wanted to send a thank-you note.
Most people would write a note saying, “Hey, thank you for the time you spent with me. I got a lot out of the meeting. I hope we can connect again. Thank you very much. Signed, Jim Rubart.”
That thank-you message goes into the brain sounding like Charlie Brown’s parents, “Wah, wah, wah wah wah wah.” It didn’t delight or shock Broca.
In my actual thank you note to Mick Silva, I wrote, “If there was more time in this life, I think we could have become friends. Maybe in eternity.” I genuinely meant that.
Two weeks later, he wrote me back to say he wanted to see my manuscript.
As fate would have it, Mick and I ended up becoming great friends. One day, I asked him if my thank-you note had anything to do with his asking for my manuscript, and he said, “Absolutely. That kind of creativity told me that you were somebody who is a little different. I had to see what you’d written.”
Another example came from Allen Arnold, who was senior vice president and publisher for Thomas Nelson Fiction. Allen’s favorite author to read at that time was Stephen Lawhead. So, Allen talked to Stephen’s agent and said, “We’d like to send a proposal to publish Stephen’s next book deal.”
Stephen’s agent said, “You’ll be wasting your time. There are three big New York publishers ahead of you, and they can offer more money.”
Allen said, “Well, do you mind if I send one?”
The agent said, “No, go ahead. I just wanted to warn you. I don’t want you to waste your time.”
At the time, Stephen Lawhead was writing books set in the medieval period. So Allen went to Hollywood, and he had a six-foot, wooden box designed to look like it came from Robin Hood’s time. Inside the box, he put this big medieval-looking bow and arrow along with his proposal printed on parchment paper.
On the outside of the box, he wrote, “Let the adventure begin.”
He shipped one box to Stephen and one to Stephen’s agent.
Well, you know the conclusion of the story. He got the contract. He got the deal because it was innovative and different. The proposal stood out.
As writers, we’re taught to grab a reader’s attention from the start with a strong hook and a strong first sentence. But I don’t find many authors who do it outside of their books.
If you learn to delight and surprise the Broca area of someone’s brain, it will rocket your career further and faster than just about anything I know.
Thomas: The temptation is to try and fit in and to be like everybody else. There’s a time for that. You don’t want your book cover to look so different that it looks like it’s coming from a different genre.
But if you’re too similar, people won’t see you at all. Or maybe they’ll read your book and enjoy it, but they’ll forget the name of the author.
If you’ve ever read an enjoyable book, but you can’t remember the author’s name, it’s because they weren’t different enough.
It’s the same for authors sending emails. We think everyone will always want to open our emails, particularly when we announce a new book. That’s big news! But if you’ve ever looked at your email statistics, you know that what’s big news for you isn’t big news for everyone.
Jim: Every day, you’re making connections, standing out, and being remembered, or you’re not. Every business, even your author business, is about building relationships.
You don’t have to be gregarious and extroverted to do this. Even if you’re introverted, you can shock, surprise, and delight Broca.
I was speaking at a conference in Colorado a few years ago, and the conference director emailed me ahead of time to see if I had any dietary restrictions. I told her no, but I also told her I hated squash.
Well, when she dropped me off at my hotel the first night, she said, “I need to let you know this hotel is not great with snacks, so I brought you something.” Then she handed me a paper bag. Inside was a big squash, and I will never forget her.
If she asks me for a favor, I am prone to help her out just because she delighted Broca’s area of my brain. She was different and unique.
Think of the inauguration this year when Lady Gaga came down in that outfit. Like it or hate it, that’s memorable. Very few people are neutral on somebody like that. It’s risky to be unique because some people won’t like it. Sometimes you’ll crash and burn. But if you want to stand out as an author, you have to make that choice.
Thomas: A big part of being different is permitting yourself to be yourself. Lean into your weird and quirky traits that you’ve tried to push down. Most of us grew up in a socialized context where we got picked on for anything that was weird or different. We tend to want to cover those things and hide them.
But when you want to stand out, that’s the time to let the weird thing shine. Because that “weird thing” may be the most interesting thing about you now. You’re not in school anymore, and hopefully, you’ve learned some emotional resilience and maturity.
You don’t have to be Lady Gaga. In fact, if anybody else tried to imitate her, it wouldn’t work. Once there are enough copycats, weird ceases to stand out. It stops working.
Don’t be weird for the sake of being weird. Be yourself, and be the most extreme, real, true version of yourself.
Jim: Here’s an example of being your true self. I’m 58 years old, and God has blessed me with good health. So, at 58, I’m still water skiing, dirt biking, mountain biking, and hiking. I’m extremely active.
The first line of my bio says, “James L. Rubart is 28 years old, but he’s trapped inside an older man’s body.” That line surprises and shocks Broca, and it makes people smile. I follow it up with, “He still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a mad man and dirt bike with his two grown sons.”
Suddenly, I’ve made myself stand out by telling people what I still do.
A friend of mine posted about scuba diving the other day, and I said, “I didn’t know you were a scuba diver. I am, too!”
Another mutual friend of ours commented, “Yep. That fits the brand.”
Shocking Broca doesn’t mean being something you’re not. It’s just allowing yourself to be who you are.
How do you shock Broca in a marketing context?
Thomas: What’s are some good strategies for shocking our target readers?
Jim: Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I am consciously posting stuff on social media that shows I’m still an adventurous guy at 58 years of age.
I am trying to get people interested in me. Because before we can sell books, we have to get people interested in listening to us.
The other day, my 25-year-old son Micah said, “Hey, Dad. Let’s tie a rope to the back of mom’s moped, set my iPhone on the back of it, and then you can pull me on my longboard up and down the street, and we’ll film it.
So we did.
Micah had no shirt, no helmet, no pads, no gloves, and I knew I was going to catch flack from the moms out there. On the other hand, I thought, “This is who I am. This is who Micah is,” so I posted it on Facebook.
I got a massive amount of likes and comments. That’s an example of going out to the masses and being yourself in a captivating way.
If you want to shock Broca, you must be willing to take the criticism because you will get some.
Thomas: That’s right. These days, one of the easiest ways to shock Broca is to speak the truth when everyone else is lying and agreeing to the same lie. You will get everyone’s attention, for better or for worse, if you’re the one person telling the truth.
There are times when the truth is popular and times when the truth is not popular. Right now, the truth is not very popular. If you’re willing to say what’s true, you will get people’s attention even if it’s an uncomfortable, politically incorrect truth.
Even when people clamor to cancel you because you’re saying an uncomfortable truth, you still win.
Jim: That’s exactly right. You’ve heard the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Whether you’re getting positive or negative attention, you’re still getting attention.
Regardless of what you do, some people won’t like it. You have to say, “That’s OK. You’re not my audience anyway.” And while those people are talking about how much they don’t like it, someone listening may be thinking, “Well, I do like it!”
Thomas: Many people are nervous about standing out, so they write a book just like everyone else’s. They want to stand out, but they don’t want criticism. There is really no way to shock Broca without getting criticism.
If you spill hot coffee on yourself and shout in pain at the restaurant, everyone will look at you. Some will be angry because you interrupted their conversation. People don’t like having Broca shocked. They resent it a little bit. People want life to go on the way it always has.
How do we find the courage to start doing things differently?
Jim: Start small. Start by writing your emails just a bit differently. Try to sign off in a new, clever way.
I recommend finding a partner with whom you can meet weekly to ask one another, “How did you shock Broca in a small way this week?
We are wired to love dopamine hits. Social media engineers have figured out that if we get a little reward, or recognition (think likes and comments), our brains get a dopamine hit.
Thomas: Dopamine is the chemical responder in your brain that’s connected with doing exciting things and being happy. Dopamine is an addictive neurochemical that our bodies produce. Social media does things for us that cause dopamine to be released in our brains.
Jim: If you start trying to be different in little ways, you’ll discover some people like it, and you’ll get your neurochemical reward. That will perpetuate itself, and you’ll begin to lose your fear of being different.
I taught my sons to do this when they were young. For example, one time, our family went to the Space Needle. We were eating in the pizza restaurant there when a song came on that my son, Taylor, liked.
I said to Taylor, “If you get up and dance for a full minute in the middle of this restaurant, I will give you ten bucks.” Taylor might have been 11 years old, so that was a lot of money to him. It was also an uncomfortable risk for him. But he got up and danced for a full minute.
Do you know what happened after he got done? Everybody in the restaurant clapped. He had a reinforcement that being weird and different and taking risks can be rewarding. He also got his ten bucks.
If you’re not sure that you can do this, start small, and see what happens.
Where does courage come from?
Thomas: Another way to develop courage is to fall in love with your readers. Love casts out fear. Once you realize that getting their attention means you can offer your enjoyable or helpful book, you’re less likely to be so afraid.
Your desire to bless or entertain your readers can be a powerful motivator to overcome fear. Money is also a powerful motivator, and if you need to pay the bills, you’ll have less trouble overcoming fear.
Jim: You can also leverage your hobbies. I have worked with many authors over the years, and I repeatedly find authors who believe their uniqueness is normal. They think everyone has the same talent they have. But that is not the case.
When I was at my ad agency, I would visit new clients and do some sleight-of-hand tricks in my presentations. In some cases, it was massively successful. In others, I crashed and burned.
In one instance, I was the last ad agency presenting to the AT&T Wireless dealers in Seattle. I did a magic trick as part of my presentation, and it blew them away.
They said, “We will let you know in two weeks.” But they called me back two days later to say I had the account.
I saw another example of this when I was teaching at a conference about shocking Broca. A girl approached me a few days after my class and told me she had tried it.
She was a cartoonist, and she had an appointment with an editor. She drew her entire pitch as cartoons on cards. She walked in with her stack of cards, and she didn’t say anything. She just sat down and started showing her cards to the editor.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the editor requested her proposal.
Think about your hobbies and how they can naturally tie into shocking Broca?
How do I know what’s different?
Thomas: The only way to know what’s different is to know what is normal. You need to know what patterns you need to break, which means you must read the books you are competing with. You need to be going to other author websites in your genre. If you don’t know what’s normal is, you won’t know what’s different.
You might discover all the authors in your genre are trying to be quirky in the same way. Here in Austin, when podcasting became popular, podcasters wanted to use lots of foul language. Everyone tried to be different in the same way at the same time, and they all blended in with one another.
On my podcast, I wanted to stand out by not using foul language.
If everyone else had a clean podcast, then the person using foul language would stand out.
You must know who you’re trying to reach, and you need to be in your target reader’s world so you’ll know how to stand out.
Think of it this way. Dogs can’t see all the colors. So, if you want to get a dog’s attention, you need to know how they see things. Certain colors are very flashy to the human eye, but for a dog, those same colors are hard to differentiate from the background. Discover how your reader sees things.
Any final tips on being surprisingly and delightfully different?
Jim: Shocking and delighting Broca is a skill you can teach your kids and use in other areas of your life. Make it a lifestyle, and it will open opportunities. People who know how to get attention in delightful ways get promotions and job offers. They often get invited to greater adventures than you can imagine.
It’s going to be uncomfortable at first. But as you do it, it becomes so fun. It becomes almost a game. So don’t be afraid.
Thomas: Be courageous in the little things, and you can learn to be courageous in the big things. Courage and truth surprise and delight readers.
During the Great Depression, a spoiled socialite must suddenly find a way to support herself and her child. Can she turn a homemade recipe for skin tonic into a livelihood?
You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
If you can’t afford to become a patron but still want to help the show, you can! Just share this episode with one person you think would find it helpful.
Thomas: Jim, what have you been up to since the last time you were on the show?
Jim: My friend Susan Mae Warren and her son wrote a book with me. We actually wrote six books together, and they are all releasing this year. Three have already been released, and the next three will release in the second half of the year.
The series is called The True Lies of Rembrandt Stone. It’s the tale of a detective who time travels to solve cold cases. You can get the first chapter (on audio) of the first book, Cast the First Stone, by going to RembrandtStone.com.