Capture Blog

How to Reach People: The Reticular Activating System

Recently, I watched a webinar for writers looking to get published. In the world of fiction, especially, that means securing a literary agent. A writer can’t simply write a book and send it to a big publishing house like Knopf and expect a response — those editors won’t even look at a book unless an agent brings it to them.

So when a writer wants to get published, they must query agents. But agents aren’t for “hire” in that way; they work on commission and are actually paid in the publishing deal. The writer doesn’t pay an agent at all, and therefore, the agent, who is taking a calculated bet that this writer will pay off, literally, chooses the writer they want to represent. It seems daunting to many writers, especially a first-time author. Competition for representation is fierce.

In the webinar, this literary agent spent an hour talking about how to get the agent’s attention. And what she talked about was the Reticular Activating System, or the RAS.

The RAS is a part of the human brain that, among other things, acts as a filter. It filters out what it thinks is unimportant and focuses on what is important. And what’s important? In a word, ME.

Or, YOU, as the case may be. Here’s how it works: when I write a query letter to an agent, I want to make the content of the letter important to him or her. First up: address them by their name. It’s really that simple. When we hear our name, the brain lights up in recognition.

Next, when discussing your book, don’t focus on what you like about it — which is to say, why you think it’s important — but focus on what they value! It is critical, say the New York literary agents, for the writer to “do the research” into the agent themselves: their interests, what they want to read, even where they’re from. Then sell your book via the things the agent will value in it — and they will recognize not only their name but also their loves and desires and values. You’ll hook them.

As a young Capture Higher Ed content writer (well, three years ago anyway) I felt I had to sell the school by what I thought was the college’s best attributes. I tried to convince the students that the college was worthy of their attention. No more! Over the course of many years, I researched into what high school students value. What do they desire? What do they worry over? Then I address them by name — in the subject line and salutation — and I address every one of their concerns.

It’s tempting for a college admissions team, or a resume writer for that matter, to try to sell themselves by talking about what they think is great about themselves, but it just falls flat — it falls, basically, on deaf ears. Instead, common wisdom says to tell that prospective employer or agent or student, here’s what I can do for you.

Now granted, I’m no neuroscientist, and I may not be describing the RAS exactly as it is. Nevertheless, this simple trick works with literary agents — and in a survey the webinar host undertook, the agents reported that this is indeed the case. It only makes sense that this will work for students, too: personalize the communication. And granted, we can’t write a separate email to every single high school senior, but I, for one, can still do the research into what a high school senior’s concerns are.

The result? The RAS responds. Which means, I hook them.

By Sean Hill, Senior Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed

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