Using Science to Overcome The "Four Second Rule"

Have you heard of the 4 second rule? 

According to trade show experts, you have four seconds to capture the attention of a trade show prospect and draw them into your booth.  

It sounds like an insurmountable problem. You have to tell them what you offer, why it matters to them, why they should engage you and not your competitor across the aisle, and why they should enter your booth now and not later. 

How can you deliver enough interesting information in four seconds that your ideal prospect will be compelled to enter your booth and engage your team? 

You can’t.

In fact, you shouldn’t.  

Your goal in the four seconds should be to get your ideal prospect to do one thing: stop walking.  

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman revealed that the brain has two “systems” for thinking about things. System 1 is sort of a “mental triage unit.” As information comes in through your five senses, System 1 evaluates it for importance: is this going to kill me? Should I eat it? Should I run from it? Should I mate with it? This is a binary decision: your brain uses System 1 to determine what it should work on and what it should ignore.  

System 2 is what we call “higher level thinking.” If you want someone to listen to your value proposition and desire what your company offers her, you need her brain to use System 2 thinking and critically evaluate your offer. Her brain only engages System 2 when System 1 decides that something is worthy of her time and attention.

On the trade show floor, System 1 is barraged with tons of stimuli: crowds of people, colorful displays, flashing lights, noisy exhibits, music, and marketing messages. To handle all the data, it decides to ignore almost everything that isn’t necessary to survival.

That’s where the Four Second Rule came from: System 1 is busy processing stimuli, choosing to ignore almost everything. People don’t stop at most trade show booths because nothing in the booth is so appealing to System 1 that it tells the brain to engage System 2.  

So if you try to approach the average person in the aisle with a marketing message you’re doomed from the beginning. The brain hears your message, says “too complicated,” and ignores you. Salesmen know this instinctively - that’s why they rarely engage prospects in the aisle and just wait for someone to actually enter the booth.

It’s better to appeal to simpler motives to stop traffic. Giveaways like food and valuable gifts are more effective traffic stoppers. For over 30 years, Exhibit Surveys has found that presentations and demonstrations featuring live entertainment have been the most effective traffic stoppers. As a trade show magician, I’ve found that waving a large stack of $100 bills, offering to give them away to a winner, and letting people actually hold the money compels people to stop and see what’s happening at my booth.

Referring to this as “appealing to baser instincts” is inaccurate thinking: this technique satisfies System 1’s requirement that whatever the brain pays attention to must address simple needs. Now, the brain is permitted to use System 2 to engage the activity in your booth.

This is why live demonstrations featuring entertainment have been the #1 traffic stopper in the trade show industry for nearly 50 years (since Exhibit Surveys has been keeping records). The movement, sound, activity, and existing crowd makes System 1 want to know what’s happening at the booth.  

Once they stop, System 2 is engaged, and the mind is now open to fully comprehend a business message. By promising a “gift” or “a chance to win” after the show, the audience is engaged and logically moved to stay throughout the program, ensuring they hear the pitch that will be integrated into the performance.  

Only now is it possible to offer a value proposition: come into the booth, learn how our product will solve your particular problem, and schedule a follow up with our sales team so you can get the result you want. A qualified prospect will want to enter the booth because he appreciates the value proposition, while an unqualified prospect will ignore the booth because he does not.  

As trade shows grow larger and more companies choose to exhibit, ensuring you booth captures attention and engages your potential prospect’s mind becomes evermore important. Understanding System 1 and System 2 will help ensure you capture your prospects attention and engage their critical thinking, so they can fully grasp your value proposition.  

Ready to implement a reliable system for prospecting your next trade show? Mike Duseberg builds a crowd at your booth, broadcasts a message that identifies your ideal clients, and brings in qualified leads. Check out with further information, a free five minute “mini-webinar” on trade show tactics, and other free information.