Welcome to a huge list of copywriting tips.
Whether you’re writing a blog article or designing an advertisement, you’ll learn which words — based on scientific evidence — will maximize the persuasiveness of your message.
Table of Contents
Conveying Your Message
Strategy: Boost the Clarity
- Tactic 1: Choose Active Voice (Over Passive Voice)
- Tactic 2: Describe Information Using Positive Frames
- Tactic 3: Add Coherence Markers Throughout Your Copy
Strategy: Trigger a Positive Emotion
Strategy: Provide a Concrete Mental Image
- Tactic 6: Use Metaphors to Convey Intangible Concepts
- Tactic 7: Transform Generic Claims into Concrete Terms
- Tactic 8: Convey Percentages in Terms of People
Motivating Your Readers
Strategy: Deemphasize Your Persuasion
- Tactic 9: Emphasize Their Freedom to Choose
- Tactic 10: Describe the Drawbacks of Your Request
- Tactic 11: Mention the Competing Alternatives
- Tactic 12: Prolong the Start of Your Pitch
Strategy: Agitate the Problem
- Tactic 13: Emphasize Their Disdain for the Problem
- Tactic 14: Ask Rhetorical Questions to Engage Readers
- Tactic 15: Use 2nd Person Pronouns
- Tactic 16: Demonstrate an Impact on Other People
- Tactic 17: Label Your Readers with a Noun
Strategy: Provide the Proper Support
- Tactic 18: Match Their Gain / Prevention Mindset
- Tactic 19: Avoid Hedges, Disclaimers, and Tag Questions
- Tactic 20: Include Words That Signal Justification
- Tactic 21: Position Strong Benefits Toward the Beginning
Conveying Your Message
Persuasion isn’t the only goal of copywriting. In this part, you’ll learn how to convey your message in the clearest, most effective way possible.
Just a side note: all of the illustrations in this article will reference a hypothetical productivity app that you created. Hopefully the consistent example will help you apply the tactics to your own projects.
Resources for Overachievers:
- Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content — Ann Handley
- How Long Should Your Pages Be? — Joanna Wiebe
- How to Create a Deep Connection With Your Prospects and Customers — Sonia Simone
- What to Do When Your Writing Sucks — Ivy Shelden
Boost the Clarity
When your writing is unnecessarily complex, readers perceive you to be less intelligent (Oppenheimer, 2006).
You can thank processing fluency.
Your opinion of content is influenced by the ease and speed with which you process it. If you have trouble processing written content, you experience negative emotions. You then misattribute those negative emotions to the content that you’re reading.
To increase the fluency of your content — and to prevent those harmful evaluations — you need to simplify your message. In this section, you’ll learn a few research-backed techniques to boost the clarity (and persuasiveness) of your writing.
Tactic 1: Choose Active Voice (Over Passive Voice)
In passive sentences, the subject is the recipient of the action. In active sentences, the subject performs the action.
- Passive Voice: Some interesting tactics are explained in this article.
- Active Voice: This article explains some interesting tactics.
Compared to passive sentences, active sentences are more persuasive. Why? Hosman (2002) explains that passive sentences are grammatically complex, thereby weakening persuasion…
“Sentences with more complex grammatical structures [are] more difficult to understand or comprehend. This comprehension difficulty could affect the persuasion process negatively, presumably because comprehension is an antecedent to persuasion…” (pp. 373)
Active sentences increase processing fluency. Because readers can digest your message more easily, they experience a positive subtle emotion (which gets misattributed to you and your content).
Tactic 2: Describe Information Using Positive Frames
Negative frames describe an absence — what isn’t happening. Positive frames, on the other hand, describe something more tangible.
- Negative Frame: Don’t be late.
- Positive Frame: Arrive on time.
- Negative Frame: Don’t drink excessively.
- Positive Frame: Drink responsibly.
- Negative Frame: Don’t use negative frames.
- Positive Frame: Use positive frames.
Since we need more mental resources to process negative frames, they reduce comprehension and degrade the impact of your message (Jacoby, Nelson, & Hoyer, 1982).
You can use negative frames occasionally. That’s normal. But you should use positive frames for the majority of your sentences.
Tactic 3: Add Coherence Markers Throughout Your Copy
Consider two versions of an advertisement for Dove (see Kamalski, 2007):
- Your skin’s natural oils keep it silky and supple. As you age, it becomes less elastic and the production of oil slows down. Aging can cause dull, dehydrated skin.
- Your skin’s natural oils keep it silky and supple. But as you age, your skin becomes less elastic and the production of oil slows down. That is why aging can cause dull, dehydrated skin.
Those passages illustrate coherence markers.
Coherence Markers – Words and phrases that connect ideas
You can use coherence markers in two ways:
- Referential Coherence – You describe an object that you referenced in a previous sentence (e.g., the second Dove passage changes “it” to “your skin”)
- Relational Coherence – You convey a causal connection (e.g., but, therefore, so, as a result, that is why, consequently)
Coherence markers don’t add semantic meaning, so many advertisers remove them.
However, research shows that coherence markers boost clarity and persuasion (Kamalski, 2007). So keep those subtle words and phrases throughout your copy (like the “so” at the beginning of this sentence).
Trigger a Positive Emotion
You just learned some techniques to boost the clarity of your writing. With a greater ease of processing, your readers indirectly experience a positive emotion (that will be misattributed to you and your content).
In this section, you’ll learn a few copywriting tips to directly trigger a positive emotion in your reader.
Tactic 4: Incorporate Your Reader’s Name
As humans, we experience implicit egotism, a natural tendency to be self-centered. We nonconsciously gravitate toward stimuli that resemble ourselves.
- People named Dennis are more likely to become dentists (Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002)
- People named Louis are more likely to live in St. Louis (Pelham, Mirenberg, & Jones, 2002)
- People named Jonathan consumed a larger portion of a drink called “Joitoki” (Holland et al., 2009)
Upon hearing your own name, certain brain regions become activated — including the middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus (Carmody & Lewis, 2006).
You can leverage that insight in your copy. By incorporating your reader’s name, you’ll trigger a positive emotion, enhancing his or her perception of your message.
If you send email blasts, don’t forget to use the merge field options. Not only should you insert people’s name into the header of the email, but you should also sprinkle their name throughout the body of your email.
Tactic 5: Use 1st Person Plural Pronouns
We’re also influenced by ingroups — people who share a similar social identity (Van Bavel, Packer, & Cunningham, 2008).
Perdue et al. (1990) studied the impact of language and ingroups. They showed participants various nonsense syllables, such as:
The researchers paired each nonsense syllable with a pronoun — either an ingroup pronoun (e.g., “us”) or an outgroup pronoun (e.g., “them”).
Even though participants couldn’t remember the specific pairings, they developed an unconscious preference for nonsense syllables that were paired with an ingroup pronoun.
When participants viewed the ingroup pronouns, they experienced a positive emotion. And, thanks to classical conditioning, they misattributed those emotions to the respective nonsense syllables.
When you use 1st person plural pronouns (e.g., us, we our), you trigger a subtle — yet positive — emotional response in your readers. Those positive emotions will then become misattributed to your content.
Provide a Concrete Mental Image
Words are meaningless. On the surface, they represent arbitrary symbols — a mere conduit that conveys our meaning.
Images, on the other hand, don’t require translation. Their meaning is immediate.
Not surprisingly, images generate a larger emotional impact than words (Hinojosa et al., 2009).
To increase the persuasiveness of your content, you should transform important written content into a mental image. How can you do that? This section will teach you a few techniques.
Tactic 6: Use Metaphors to Convey Intangible Concepts
Given the importance of concrete features, you’ll notice a problem when it comes to marketing. Try to visualize the following features:
Having trouble? Me too. You can’t visualize intangible concepts. And your readers share the same difficulty.
That’s where metaphors can help. For example…
“…life insurance companies use ideas associated with various symbols such as umbrellas (Travelers), rocks (Prudential Insurance Company), and hands (Allstate) to convey qualities of protection, sturdiness, and support” (Zaltman, 2008, p. 35).
Metaphors tangibilize the intangible. They provide your readers with a concrete mental image, enhancing the impact and persuasiveness of your message (Sopory & Dillard, 2002).
Tactic 7: Transform Generic Claims into Concrete Terms
Generic claims are a plague. They’re everywhere.
(thumbs up to anyone who recognized the coincidentally timed metaphor)
Everywhere you look, you find statements like…
- Our support team is very quick
- Our customers love us
- Our software is very reliable
Yada yada yada.
Don’t get me wrong — the underlying messages are great. But it sounds like you’re selling, rather than telling.
Watch what happens when you transform those generic claims into concrete terms:
- We’ll get you an answer within 24 hours
- 568 companies love our software
- You’ll have 100 percent uptime…guaranteed.
Suddenly your message becomes more believable and persuasive. In this case, you’re telling, rather than selling.
When possible, you should also incorporate large numbers. According to a study by Startup Moon, large numbers generate more virality.
So don’t talk about the security flaw that harms “many” WordPress users. Do a quick search for the actual number of websites:
Now you have a better headline: 75 Million Websites Are Vulnerable to a Security Flaw in WordPress.
Tactic 8: Convey Percentages in Terms of People
When we provide statistics, we’re usually trying to emphasize the importance of an issue.
Slovic, Monahan, and MacGregor (2000) examined the role of framing in percentages. They gave the following messages to separate groups of clinicians:
- Patients similar to Mr. Jones are estimated to have a 20% chance of committing an act of violence.
- 20 out of 100 patients similar to Mr. Jones are estimated to commit an act of violence.
Both messages are essentially the same. However, twice as many clinicians refused to discharge the patient when they were exposed to the second message.
To maximize the impact of your statistics, you should convey percentages in terms of people:
- Don’t Say: 90 percent of people
- Say This: 9 out of 10 people
Motivating Your Readers
Conveying your message is important. No doubt. However, your copy will usually have an underlying goal.
Oftentimes, you’ll want readers to complete an action — whether it’s buying your product, donating money, or caring about your cause.
This section can help. You’ll learn a few copywriting tips that can help influence readers to complete your call-to-action.
Resources for Overachievers:
- 5 Copywriting Strategies that Will Improve Your Conversion Rate by 113% — Neil Patel
- Do You Know What Your Prospects Are Really Thinking? — Heather LLoyd-Martin
- How to Use Scarcity to Get Lazy People to Act (Without Being Shady) — Demian Farnworth
Deemphasize Your Persuasion
Persuasion strategies should always be subtle. If readers feel like you’re trying to persuade them, they develop psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966). Instead of listening to your arguments with an open mind, they resist your persuasion attempt.
To prevent that reactance, you need to be stealthy.
How do you remain stealthy? This section will explain a few tactics that will disguise your persuasion attempt — without being manipulative.
Tactic 9: Emphasize Their Freedom to Choose
Carpenter (2013) analyzed 42 different persuasion studies. Turns out, you can make a powerful impact with four simple words:
“…but you are free…” (BYAF)
In the original study, Guégen and Pascual (2000) asked people on the street to donate money. The researchers quadrupled the amount of compliance when they incorporated the BYAF phrase, “…but you are free to accept or refuse.”
When writing copy, always emphasize your reader’s freedom to choose:
- It’s up to you…
- It’s your call…
- You can decide…
That framing reduces psychological reactance. With more freedom, your readers will develop a stronger genuine desire to complete your call-to-action.
Tactic 10: Describe the Drawbacks of Your Message
Some copywriters are scared to include drawbacks in their copy. And it makes sense. If you want people to complete your call-to-action, why would you describe negative features? Seems counterproductive.
Nevertheless, research shows that two-sided arguments are more persuasive (Rucker, Petty, & Brinol, 2008).
Two-Sided Argument – An argument that gives benefits and drawbacks
That’s why you see companies like Amazon displaying both positive and negative reviews up front:
When you present both sides of an argument, people perceive you to be more rational. It seems like you chose a side carefully, so readers feel more comfortable joining your side.
You’ll also take advantage of the spotlight effect (Heath & Heath, 2013). We tend to focus on information in front of us, while ignoring information offstage. By incorporating some negative information, your readers will assume that those drawbacks are the only drawbacks to your argument.
But here’s a caveat. You should give your drawbacks a positive spin.
For example, you can use this tactic to reinforce your target market. Explain that your offering doesn’t include a particular feature because you focused more attention in another area — an area that’s more important to your target market.
Tactic 11: Mention the Competing Alternatives
As humans, we usually determine our attitudes based on our behavior:
- If we’re eating, we infer that we’re hungry
- If we’re smiling, we infer that we’re happy
- If we’re sitting upright, we infer that we’re confident
Even if we weren’t experiencing those emotions, the mere behavior triggers those emotions within us (Wilson, 2002).
How does that relate to copywriting? If you don’t mention your competition, readers are more likely to search for competing solutions. That’s bad.
In the mere act of searching, people are more likely to infer that your solution is less attractive (Ge, Brigden, & Häubl, 2015).
However, by mentioning your competition, you prevent that search from happening. Readers feel like they’ve already done their homework, so they’re more likely to stick with your solution.
When mentioning the competition, don’t admit defeat. Simply mention the alternatives so that you can explain the difference(s) in your solution.
Tactic 12: Prolong the Start of Your Pitch
When we write copy, we feel a natural urge to emphasize our solution. And why wouldn’t we? If we want readers to complete our call-to-action, shouldn’t we describe the benefits of it?
Absolutely. But…never start your pitch immediately. Always disarm your readers first.
When people start reading your copy, they shouldn’t recognize an underlying motive or call-to-action. If readers sense that you’re trying to persuade them, they’ll be more likely to reject your benefits and arguments (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979).
So what do you do? Start by agitating the problem. Explain why the underlying problem is difficult or painful. Once you hook them in, THEN reveal your solution.
The next strategy explains that agitation tactic in more detail.
Agitate the Problem
Your solution should always relieve some type of pain that the reader is experiencing. If you want readers to appreciate your solution, you need to remind them of the pain.
So poke the wound. Show that it hurts. Before revealing your solution, agitate the underlying problem:
- Why is it important?
- Why is it problematic?
- How is it negatively affecting readers?
Then reveal your solution.
We’re biologically structured to avoid pain. So if you can trigger that feeling of pain, your readers will be more likely to pursue your solution.
This section will explain a few copywriting tips that can help you agitate the problem.
Tactic 13: Emphasize Their Disdain for the Problem
Opposing attitudes can be stronger than supporting attitudes.
For example, we show stronger support for political candidates when our attitude is framed as opposing the other candidate, rather than supporting the original candidate (Bizer & Petty, 2005).
Instead of convincing readers about the benefits of your solution, emphasize their disdain for the underlying problem.
If you’re writing copy to promote your productivity app, don’t start with benefits. Start with the negative emotions that readers experience from a lack of productivity:
- You feel stressed and overwhelmed
- You feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day
- You miss important deadlines
- Your boss thinks your incompetent
- You spend less time with your family
Readers begin empathizing with those descriptions. They imagine themselves experiencing those negative emotions, and they become frustrated with those problems.
Once they develop that opposition, then present your solution.
If your copy starts with your solution, you’ll kill that empathy process. Readers will become closed-minded, resisting any benefits that you offer. So always start by emphasizing your reader’s disdain for the underlying problem.
Tactic 14: Ask Rhetorical Questions to Engage Readers
Do you ever use rhetorical questions in your writing — like this one? If not, you should.
On the surface, they seem innocent. But don’t be fooled. Rhetorical questions make your arguments more persuasive (Petty, Cacioppo, & Heesacker, 1981).
Why are they more persuasive? Because they generate an implicit response:
“Rhetorical questions tend to invite a response from the message recipient, overt or otherwise…[This] may increase the certainty of one’s attitudes through an implicit response.” (Blankenship & Craig, 2006, pp. 124)
Through their implicit response, readers consider your arguments more carefully. They become engaged. Assuming that your arguments are valid, readers will be more persuaded by them.
Tactic 15: Use 2nd Person Pronouns
Earlier, I mentioned the benefits of incorporating your reader’s name into the copy.
When you can’t use that technique, you can achieve similar effects by using 2nd person pronouns, such as you and your.
Burnkrant and Unnava (1995) tested that assumption by giving participants different messages in a calculator advertisement:
- Frame 1: “If a mistake was made…”
- Frame 2: “You know that calculator technology…”
The second frame — because it used “self-referencing” language — generated a more favorable evaluation of the calculator.
Those 2nd person pronouns enhanced the relevance of the issue, thereby agitating the problem more effectively.
Tactic 16: Demonstrate an Impact on Other People
Self-referencing language can be very persuasive. However, you can achieve an equally — if not more — powerful effect by demonstrating an impact on other people. Especially when the impact is negative.
Consider two message that were presented in a hospital:
- Frame 1: Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.
- Frame 2: Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.
The second frame influenced more hospital staff to wash their hands (Grant & Hoffman, 2011).
When possible, explain how other people will be negatively affected if readers don’t complete your call-to-action.
Tactic 17: Label Your Readers with a Noun
Nouns generate stronger and more stable preferences. For example, Walton and Banaji (2004) gave participants various statements:
- Jennifer drinks coffee a lot
- Jennifer spends a lot of time indoors
- Jennifer watches baseball a lot
Those statements emphasize verbs. They answer the question: what does Jennifer do?
The researchers gave different statements to other participants:
- Jennifer is a coffee-drinker
- Jennifer is an indoors person
- Jennifer is a baseball fan
Those statements emphasize nouns. They answer the question: who is Jennifer?
Both sets of statements convey the same meaning. However, the second set generated a stronger impact. With nouns, those traits seemed central to Jennifer’s identity.
How can you use that tactic? For one, you could label your audience with a funky noun (any Beliebers reading this?). But you don’t need to go that far.
Here’s a simpler idea. If you’re a blogger, instead of thanking readers for doing something (e.g., reading your content), thank them for being something (e.g., being a fan of your content). That second frame will generate a stronger impact on their attitude toward your content.
Provide the Proper Support
Once you’ve agitated the problem, then — and only then — should you start your pitch. This strategy will teach you the best way to present your offering and persuade readers to complete your call-to-action.
Tactic 18: Match Their Gain / Prevention Mindset
Why are people completing your call-to-action? Are they trying to gain something or prevent something?
Consider your productivity app. Why is your target market buying it?
- Gain: To be more efficient
- Prevent: To prevent feeling overwhelmed
Your copy should match their mindset.
With congruent copy, you increase processing fluency (Lee, Keller, & Sternthal, 2010). People can digest your message more easily, so they experience a stronger reaction to it.
Ideally, you should be capturing the exact wording from interviews with your target customers. Once you know their mindset, you can agitate the problem more effectively:
- If customers want to gain efficiency, explain how your app can help them accomplish more tasks in less time
- If customers want to prevent feeling overwhelmed, explain how your app can alleviate the stress that they’re feeling
Tactic 19: Avoid Hedges, Disclaimers, and Tag Questions
You want to deemphasize your persuasion attempt. However, you don’t want to use weak language.
Here are some examples:
- “I’m not positive, but I think…”
- “I’m not an expert, but…”
- “It could go either way, but…”
- “…don’t you think?”
- “…wouldn’t it?
If your main goal is conveying information (e.g., through a blog article), you can use those phrases if you want to seem unbiased.
However, if your main goal is persuasion, you should avoid those hedges, disclaimers, and tag questions — all of which reduce the persuasiveness of your offer (Blankenship & Holtgraves, 2005).
Tactic 20: Include Words That Signal Justification
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman popularized the sheer extent of our irrationality.
We believe that our decisions are based on careful reasoning. But that’s not the case. Most of our decisions — even important ones — are quick and mindless.
Justification is a great example.
When an argument contains any justification, we mindlessly assume that the justification is valid (so we’re more persuaded by it).
Even if two arguments contain the same reasoning, merely including the word “because” will make one argument stronger than the other (Langer, Blank & Chanowitz, 1978).
But you don’t need to rely on the word “because.” Since the real culprit is justification, you can use other words that trigger the perception of justification:
- You should do XYZ, so that…
- You should do XYZ due to…
- Since _______, you should do XYZ.
When most readers encounter those signals, they’ll automatically assume that your justification is valid.
Tactic 21: Position Strong Benefits Toward the Beginning
Don’t overlook the sequencing in your message. Always position strong benefits toward the beginning of your message.
You might be familiar with the primacy effect — information has a stronger impact when it’s presented at the beginning of a sequence (Murdock, 1962).
When your first benefit is strong, you raise expectations for the remaining information. Those expectations, in turn, generate a more favorable perception.
Your initial arguments will also generate a stronger impact on long-term memory. When readers recall the benefits of your solution, they’ll be more likely to remember the initial reasons that you gave. So you want those reasons to be strong.
Copywriting is a science. With a few small changes, you can make a large impact on the persuasiveness of your message.
But you should be realistic. At the end of the day, writing is still an art.
You can’t transform a crappy painting into a masterpiece with a few brush strokes. Likewise, you can’t transform crappy copy into a persuasive message with a few minor tweaks. You need good copy at the heart of your message.
If you can’t write compelling copy, you should make that goal a priority. Pick up some books to improve your writing skills:
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need by Susan Thurman
- Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
Once you have those foundational skills, then you can make those extra tweaks to maximize the impact of your message.
And if you’re still hungry for more copywriting content, you might enjoy my article on the psychology of stock photos.
Unfortunately, I’m at a disadvantage by discussing persuasive writing. If I end with a call-to-action (and use the tactics from this article), then I’ll look sleazy. Woops. Not very conducive.
So I’ll just end with a straightforward CTA. If you enjoyed the article, then you’ll enjoy my other content. You can subscribe to my blog by downloading the PDF version + checklist.