Word Psychology: The Science Behind Compelling Copy

April 8, 2014 Steve Maurer

“Choose your words wisely!”

Have you ever been told that?

I have.

I was agitated over an “unjust” reprimand given me by a teacher. My face was red, my hands were clenched and my lips trembled as I desperately sought to verbalize my resentment.

“Choose your words wisely, young man,” he cautioned.

I didn’t.

Choosing the right words does make a difference in the outcome.

Lesson learned – the hard way.

Can you really write like you talk?

I thought this would be a fairly easy article to write.

I would just expound on the standard words that make up the psychology behind effective writing. You know the type: free; you; because; and so on.

However, the more I researched and planned the article, the more intriguing it became. We’ll look at the “old standards” that you can use to evoke the intended response; but first, I want to ask that question again.

Can you really write like you talk?

How do you write? You put down words, sentences and paragraphs as you speak them silently – or perhaps not so silently – in your mind.

And you’ve written a really great piece because you’ve made sure to write to your reader, not at them. You used simple, direct language. As you read over the work you smiled, you cried, you laughed so hard you had to, uh, change your pants.

A masterpiece in fine writing if there ever was one.

However, there’s a problem

You read it just like you would say it.

But, your audience isn’t listening to you read it . . . they’re reading it for themselves. You aren’t there to tell them which words and syllables to emphasize. You aren’t there to tell them if a sentence is sarcastic, metaphorical or whatever.

They have to figure that out all on their own.

When you’re talking to someone, you use inflection, facial expressions and body language to convey the correct meaning or nuance. But, when they’re reading it, you’re not there.

It’s possible for them to read it . . . wrong!

You say tomato, I say tomato. You say potato, I say potato.

If I was singing those phrases (and be thankful I’m not) from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie song, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off , you would know that it’s a long “a” in one word of each pair and a short “a” in the other.

But you can’t tell that by reading it unless you’re familiar with the movie and song.

That particular example might not make a big difference. However, using a word or phrase that doesn’t explicitly state your intended meaning does.

Here’s a trick you can try at home.

Save your document as a PDF file and then have the Adobe Reader program read it back to you. This monotonous, emotionless reader quickly shows you if what you wrote is indeed what you meant.

Choose your words wisely.

The “Sigh-chology” of Words

The trigger that helps “on-the-fence” people take action is emotion. Feelings of indifference are impotent in decision making.

Even so, it doesn’t take a huge mood swing or a flood of emotion to get results. Subtle changes draw out emotion. Ping your reader’s emotions gently.

Here’s an example.

One of my favorite movies is Ice Age. It has a recurring theme of “the herd.” Everyone wants a herd. Everyone needs a herd. Safety is found in the herd.

How does that apply?

Think about that button your reader clicks to get your newsletter or sign up for your blog. Does it say “subscribe” on the button?

People want to clear inbox clutter, not add to it.

Instead of subscribing, let them join. It’s the herd mentality at work. Subscribing is so cold, so lonely.

But joining? Now that’s different. Gathering with like-minded folks is warmer, more inviting.

It lets them be a part of a herd.

However, if you want a targeted, more elite following, try designing your opt-in promos around the “pack” mentality. It’s still a group, but with more hardcore focus than the herd.

Different mentality – different results.

The old standbys

Now it’s time to chew over the usual suspects, the words that we all know work for persuasive copy. But if you’re new to copywriting, you might not know or understand these trigger words.

YOU

The sweetest word in any vocabulary is a person’s own name. However, it’s not always possible to use it. Instead, make your writing personal by using the word “you.” This has another effect as well.

That one word forces you to write to an audience of one, making your text more active.

If you’re sending out an email, use software to insert the recipient’s name in the salutation and even in other parts of the body copy. If you can’t, then write as if to one person.

FREE/COMPLIMENTARY

Free is good, very good. It’s my “favorite ingredient” in just about everything. However, be careful using the word. Make sure your reader doesn’t equate “free” with “worthless.”

Make sure that you promote the “free” item’s value. Something like, “This report normally sells for $39.95; but we’re offering it to you free when you sign up before midnight tonight.” (Did you notice the subtle “push” word, by the way?)

Here’s a pet peeve of mine; if you set a cut-off time or date to promote urgency, stick to it. If I come back after the deadline and still see the offer, particularly with a new deadline, you lose credibility.

If you can split test, try using free on one and complimentary on the other. You might be interested in the results. Ask the major players in the hospitality business.

INSTANT/IMMEDIATELY

Humans are an impatient bunch. Even though we’re taught that delayed gratification builds strength and character, we’d rather get it right now.

When there’s a long time delay for getting what we asked for, an immediate bonus softens the blow.

“While you’re waiting for your product to arrive, here is a user manual you can download immediately.”

WHY/BECAUSE

Studies show that giving a reason for an action gives it more credibility and softens resistance. If you want some great examples from test subjects, pick up Robert Cialdini’s “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion,” available at Amazon.

For example, “Move your car, because if you don’t, I’ll be late to work,” is much stronger than just, “Move your car.”

Even if you said please.

Give your reader a real, practical reason to take action.

Cultivate an “Us” mentality

I can’t spend a lot of time here. It could fill up a whole topic by itself. But cultivating a “yes” mentality requires some refined changes in word choice as you write the piece. In the beginning, your reader has a “me versus you” attitude.

Subtle wording modifications transform “me versus you” to “you and I” and then into “us.”

When you arrive there, the push to the call to action can be – and will be – more forceful.

That’s all I got for now. It’s your turn. When you post in the comments, you can share what’s worked for you. We want to hear from you!

Comment now . . . before midnight tonight!

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About the Author

Steve Maurer

Steve Maurer, Maurer Copywriting is a freelance copy and content writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His tagline at Maurer Copywriting , Professional Freelance Business Writing – Plain and Simple, explains both his target audience and his writing philosophy. You can meet him on LinkedIn or call him at 479-304-1086.

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