“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau

Attention is a limited resource.

When people say “nobody reads online”, they actually mean that your visitors’ attention is at such a premium, you can’t expect them to consume your every word. They’re far more likely to forage swiftly for what they want than to risk reading every word and, in doing so, letting your site waste their time and attention.

We’ve only got so much attention, and science tells us what little we have works like a spotlight. We focus in high-res on a very small amount of content, and from there our vision gets increasingly blurry until it reaches the margin, or the cut-off point, like this illustrates:

William James spotlight attention

See how small our focus is, relative to everything there is to see?

Although we can see the fringe and all the way to the margins peripherally, almost everything beyond the focus fails to register at the conscious level. This is what that can look like with your copy:

The spotlight theory of attention

With such a tiny window on which to focus our attention – and with so many stimuli competing for our attention, especially online and while using our devices – we have to be selective. We can’t look at everything. And even if we had the time and patience to read lines of copy word by word, stopping to think about each one and the environment it’s in, let’s be real: none of us is smart enough to ‘beat’ our evolutionary instinct to focus on what appears to be important and filter out the rest. 

(But I do love hearing people say they can beat nature: “Advertising doesn’t work on me!” Oy.)

You’re probably familiar with the Selective Attention Test:

…but have you seen the “gentleman pickpocket” Apollo Robbins at work on Brain Games? Watch this – it won’t take long, and it’s worth it:

Psychologists, magicians and pickpockets manage your attention. When a psychologist does it, it’s an experiment. When a magician does it, it’s cool. When a pickpocket does it, it’s a crime.

When a marketer does it…?

How to Persuade Better Using the Tricks Magicians Use to Dazzle the Eye

“Magic is a rich and largely untapped source of insight into perception and awareness.” – Source

Magic, misdirection and sleight-of-hand may seem a little out of place on a blog about copywriting. But check out a few things the best magicians do well, and see if they don’t sound familiar:

  • Anticipate the objections and assumptions of an audience, and ‘answer’ them at the moment they spring to mind
  • Try to define and reflect the intentions of their audience
  • Direct the audience to something curious enough to take the focus off something you don’t want them to focus on

Don’t the best marketers and copywriters also do all of the above?

When you consider the fact that the work of magicians is based largely in neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and psychology, it’s a bit of a wonder that magic and marketing aren’t discussed in concert more often.

Magicians are keenly aware of the assumptions people make, just like marketers are. (Except magicians use our assumptions to their advantage, while marketers pretend they can battle assumptions or simply disregard them entirely.) Take Teller’s – the other half of Penn – explanation when he intentionally shows his hand at just the right moment, just as his audience is jumping to conclusions about how he does a certain magic trick (start at 1:46):

Like a great copywriter would do, Teller anticipates the objections of his audience and elegantly counters them at precisely the moment they have them. As a result, the walls come down. How could they stay up? The moment you think you’ve figured something out, you learn you’re wrong and, most importantly, they’re right. The bigger lesson you take away: You can trust the magician more than you can trust yourself.

That’s persuasive.

That’s persuasive in ways more common persuasion tactics, like social proof, simply aren’t. So if you’ve been looking for really sweet new tricks to add to your persuasion toolkit, look no further than these ones, courtesy of the world of magic.


Magic Attention Kids Three and Under Study

Source: Forbes

Attention management starts with an awareness of the fact that your visitors cannot and will not look at everything at the same time; they need to focus on pieces of your page at a time. Don’t underestimate the likelihood that your prospect is already lacking focus when they arrive on your site. If your visitors are at work, they’re likely to switch tasks every 3 minutes and take up to 30 minutes to get back to the original task. If your visitors are like me, they’ve currently got a 4-month-old kitten on their lap playing with the strings of their hoodie. Attention is scattered. You are free to focus it.

Once you really accept that, you can start to use attention management to your advantage… in a non-scuzzy way!

Magicians manage your attention by compelling you to notice what they want you to notice. Once they have your attention, they can adjust your perception to make you focus on something or to make something quite important seem perfectly shrug-worthy – visible, but unnoticeable. For example, midway into the video below, Apollo Robbins seems to hand his ‘clicker’ back to the TED coordinator. He states this for the audience to hear: “Don’t think I need this clicker anymore. You can have that. Thanks.” In fact, he’s not just handing over a clicker:

As far as the audience knows, Robbins was just handing something valueless to a coordinator – an act not worth paying any attention to. (Of course, he’s controlling that, like everything.) But if you did pay attention, you’d see that he was actually removing his shirt and tie, which he then set aside at the same time that he handed the clicker to the woman.

Marketers do the same thing. We manage attention, not necessarily by misdirection but by focusing attention.

Imagine if you could manage attention as thoroughly as successful magicians do it.

My question is, why can’t we?

We make stabs at attention management, and they can be pretty good. Attentive interfaces are increasingly studied, especially with regard to social networks. And online marketers, CROs and copywriters work hard to focus attention. Consider this pricing table. Where does your eye go on it?

Attention management in marketing and copywriting

If you’re like most people, you focused your attention on the green column. When we tested the green button against a black one, we saw a big boost on clicks on the middle (green) button. All we did was manage our visitors’ attention. Instead of letting their eye go wherever, we used a different button color to zero the visitor in on the button we wanted them to notice and click.

That’s managing attention.

Now, a magician or pickpocket might have focused your attention on the green button so he could hide something in either of the greyish-black columns. We didn’t do that in the above, but a marketer could.

Managing attention is a huge part of a great user experience. When attention is poorly managed, things can go very badly. Recently, this happened for me. I’ve been ordering my contact lenses from ClearlyContacts.ca for years, and I’m always delighted when they arrive at my doorstep the next morning, which is a perk of living across the pond from their headquarters in Vancouver. Unfortunately, when I placed my most recent order, my attention wasn’t 100% on the task at hand, and I only briefly glazed over my shipping options:

Poorly managed attention UX

I accidentally went with their default: Canada Post.

Big mistake.


My contact lenses did not arrive the next day. They arrived about 5 days after I placed my order. Because Canada Post is as slow as molasses (sorry, CP, but I speaketh the truth), and Purolator is super-fast.

Had I not been distracted by making sure my contact info (on the left) was right, I might have focused my attention on comparing my shipping options. I might not have simply assumed the default was the best. I might not have scanned the first few lines of each option and paused only on the phrase “If you are shipping to a PO Box…”, which was not true for me and thus allowed me to eliminate that option from my attention.

If Clearly Contacts wanted me to choose Canada Post Priority, they did a great job.

If they didn’t, they may be inadvertently creating poor experiences for more visitors than just moi.

Not only was this a case of a website mismanaging its users attention. It was also a case of repetition gone wrong. Which brings me to…


Yet another reason I went with the default when ordering from Clearly Contacts was because I’ve ordered from them so many times without any issues that I was certain there would be no issues again. I didn’t even consider the possibility that the future might be different from the past – which is exactly what magicians and sleight-of-hand pros rely on.

Y’know the Disappearing Ball trick? It’s all about repetition and misdirection.

In that trick, the magician throws the ball up three times, catching it each time – but on the third throw, the ball seems to vanish in mid-air.

When you break that trick down, he throws the ball up and watches it go up then come back down and land in his hand. He throws the ball up again and watches it go up then come down and land in his hand. He throws the ball a third time and watches it go up – but it’s vanished. In fact, he palmed the ball. But because everything happened exactly as it did the last two times – including the magician looking up as if he, too, expects the ball to be in the air – his audience thinks that the ball must have vanished.

We rely on history to predict the future. That works most of the time. When it doesn’t work, our brains – which operate largely on autopilot – get confused. This happens every time a pattern is interrupted.

Hypnotists use this in The Handshake Induction. That’s a technique where you break a pattern – like doing a handshake differently than expected – which creates a distraction. In that moment, the subject is in a trance-like, transderivational state that leaves them open to suggestion, as shown here:

K, so I’m not really into the whole hypnosis thing. But the idea of interrupting patterns is pervasive across magic, hypnosis, psychology and, yes, marketing.

A persuasion technique based on this is called Disrupt Then Reframe. Marketers can use it to:

  • Make an important message more likely to stick – without the prospect knowing they’ve ‘been sold to’ – whilst our attention is shifted by a broken pattern
  • Create better user experiences that are grounded in working with patterns
  • Keep attention from drifting by keeping people looped into a developing pattern

Importantly, repetition is most effective when your audience’s attention isn’t focused on that which you’re repeating. They should see the pattern and witness its disruption, but they shouldn’t be aware of the pattern formation.


Great magicians “close all the doors”, which simply means that they rule out all possibilities that anything but magic can be responsible for what their audience is witnessing.

Magicians swipe their hands through the air to prove no strings are attached. They roll up their sleeves and point to indicate just how empty those sleeves are – no tricks up there. They spin the girl in the box before sawing her in half. They pull someone from the audience to lock them into their chains.

All the objections that the average viewer is likely to have are quashed one after the other. For best results, they’re quashed very rapidly and by someone other than the magician. (The brain ranks speed over accuracy.) Here’s what’s great about that for marketers:

  1. Rapid objection-stomping: If you’ve been thinking that perhaps these magical persuasion techniques are only for long-form sales pages, guess again. Because objections need to be addressed quickly, before the viewer really has time to do more than accept what they’re seeing, it’s easy to close all the doors on short 2.0-y pages.
  2. Objection-stomping by a third party: Hello, social proof! Seek out testimonials that directly address objections. List them one after the other, in rapid succession. This is just like letting an audience member check to be sure there are no strings attached.

If you can link an effect to your product while ruling out the possibilities that other factors were responsible for that effect, your prospect will better believe your product is ‘the magic’.


The fourth and final trick of the evening is… mental forcing.

Sounds painful, right? It’s actually the exact opposite. It gives all the power back to your audience – so they can finish the exercise with the ultimate act of magic: convincing themselves.

With mental forcing, you give people the illusion of choice. You spend a lot of time emphasizing that whatever they do is up to them, often using phrases like, “It’s your choice.”

Pick a card, any card.

You tell me. It’s up to you. 

Is this the cup you think the ball is under?

As Apollo Robbins says, “persuasion or influence is the idea of controlling choices.”

I doubt persuasion pros like Cialdini or Carnegie would argue. Actually, mental forcing is closely tied to Cialdini’s commitment principle of persuasion, which holds that people are more likely to follow through on something they’ve said they’ll do than to quit. When you justify a crappy product purchase, you’re falling into the trap of commitment. You’ve been persuaded; your choices have been controlled; yet you operate under the illusion, still, that you have full control and you are making the choice.

As mentioned here:

“Magicians are effectively trying to rewrite spectators’ vague memories of being implicitly influenced and under pressure with the idea that their choice was completely of their own volition. It turns out that magicians are much better at mental forcing than psychologists who have often recorded only modest effects in laboratory conditions”

The illusion of free will is powerful. The ability to choose to believe yourself or to surrender that belief and rather believe in the magician – or believe what the marketing copy is saying – is powerful.

Remember earlier when I mentioned the persuasive power of finding out you were wrong? That’s got a lot to do with mental forcing.

So as you work to persuade, to overcome objections, and even to introduce key messages when the mind is most open to receiving them, be sure to make this clear at every turn: “It’s your choice.”


And, of course, no magician would seem even remotely confident – the word “con” is short for “confidence” – without patter. Patter is the often jokey stuff that the magician says to the audience and to the ‘mark’ throughout a performance. The goal is to make your visitor so confident in you, they simply don’t question what you say.

Wrap up your objection-stomping and attention management tactics in patter, which will make you more believable, more likable and more likely to persuade.


BTW, if you think that using a magician’s bag of tricks to persuade your visitors is, like, sketchville or something, don’t kid yourself. You’ve already been persuaded by the likes of Cialdini, who’ve dressed up magically persuasive tricks in a white scientist’s coat, and Carnegie, who positioned magical persuasion as better relationships.

Magicians are simply more honest about their manipulation efforts.