When you tell your children, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door," you are not doing them any favors. In fact, you are setting them up for a life of poverty and disappointment instead of successful entrepreneurs.

How will they get the word out? Can they convince anyone that mice must be exterminated in a new way? Do they have the messianic zeal to promote their mousetrap until they are tired of hearing themselves talk?

If you've sold them this bill of goods, you should apologize and set them straight. You should say, "When you build a better mousetrap, open your door and beat a path to the world--a path made of words."

Words move people. In fact, what moves people to buy are not the hard attributes of a product or service. Messages, not attributes, get people to buy. And messages are made of words.

Every online market is like a dating website: you have an average of 9 seconds to grab the shopper's ears, eyes, and interest. Here are a number of ways that communicators can get attention:


The most successful advertisements are exaggerations. Exaggeration is a form of metaphor. "This Acme 386 Lawn Mower is so fast you will fly over your lawn," and suddenly generic Dad takes flight over his perfect swath of green, leaving his neighbor mowing in the dust.

Keep it simple

President Teddy Roosevelt spoke of the "Square Deal." His cousin Franklin Roosevelt spoke of the "New Deal." LBJ proclaimed "The Great Society." Obama proclaimed, "Change you can believe in." Trump wants to, "Make America Great Again."

Underneath these deceptively simple labels lie vast and complex political ideas, but the words themselves signal a set of values that mean something, that ignite our hearts and minds and cause us to vote for one, or another, candidate.

Make it startling

The opening scene of the movie Flight is startling. Denzel Washington, playing a commercial airline pilot, erupts out of a hotel bed, and a naked woman climbs out after him. He goes to the bathroom, pops a handful of pills and puts drops in his eyes to hide the fact he's an addict. Within a matter of minutes he's out the door in his uniform, prepared to fly a plane. You can barely catch your breath.

Make it sensory

We've all heard the story about the guy who met an attractive woman at a bar. She offers to buy him a drink. He's flattered and takes a sip. It's the last thing he remembers, until he wakes up, disoriented , lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice. Panicking, he looks around to find out where he is and how he got there. Then he spots a note: DON'T MOVE. Call 911.

A cellphone rests on the edge of the tub. He makes the call. The operator seems oddly familiar. She says, "Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?" There is.

The operator says, "Don't panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There's a ring of organ thieves operating in the city. Paramedics are on their way. Don't move until they arrive."

The sensory load of this classic story is enough to light up multiple areas of anyone's brain.

Make it interactive

Adults have a lot of one very valuable commodity: experience. And they weigh messages based on how those messages line up with their own experience, which is a very hard thing to get right. However, if you can get them involved in some way, say--put all those pieces of paper in the right envelope when they open their Publishers' Clearing House package--then you have a better chance of getting them engaged.

Make it funny

Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University and the author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has established that humor is inherently persuasive. It gives pleasure to people, and we tend to remember pleasure, and forget what gave us pain or bored us.

Use a mascot

Tony the Tiger, the Trix Rabbit, Charlie the StarKist Tuna, The AFLAC duck, The Geico Gekko, The Qantas Koala, Smokey the Bear, Mickey Mouse, Big Bird, McGruff the Crime Dog. What is it with Mascots? They're cute, and we see ourselves in them.

Link it to authority

Stanley Millman was a psychologist at Yale who got students to electrocute their peers, except their peers were actors pretending to be the subjects of an experiment. They (the actors) screamed for help, but when Dr. Millman said, "Turn up the juice," the students did as they were told, giving the subjects what amounted to electric shocks that could have been fatal had they been real.

We are homo-sapiens. We tend to respect hierarchies.

Make it emotional

Almost all successful messages are problem/solution messages. Reminding people of a problem triggers anxiety, and the lower you can go on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the more anxiety you create. Of all the needs on Maslow's hierarchy, loss of security is probably the most commonly used problem to generate anxiety in the business world.

Another word for it is FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. In fact, the greatest public speaker in the history of the world, a Roman named Marcus Tullius Cicero, said this: "Tickling and then soothing anxiety is the test of a speaker's impact and technique." Problems make us anxious, solutions make us feel secure.

Make it like a story

Stories are thought experiments. We imagine ourselves in the story, and we live through the ups and downs of the plot, allowing our nervous systems to bathe vicariously in the pain and pleasure experienced by the characters. Stories have bad guys and good guys, drama, tension, and anxiety. We are practicing being brave when we engage with dramatic stories.

Make it specific

Which one of these headlines works best?

  • How to Get 6,312 Subscribers
  • How to Get Over 6,000 Subscribers
  • How to Get a Torrent of Subscribers

Most of us would choose the first. Why? It's almost a given that we know the headline is referencing a real result. Precise details help convey that you are telling the truth. A vague "guesstimate" is not going to have the same impact.

Make it counter-intuitive

On June 10th, 1993, when Barry Goldwater, a conservative Republican, defended the rights of gays to serve in the military, he said, "You don't need to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight." The remark was counter-intuitive and startling in its time.

Go ahead and tell your kids to build a better mousetrap, but remind them that after that, they will have to beat a path to the world, a path made of words.