Want to improve the persuasiveness of your writing? Here are clever tricks based on psychology.
Concrete words are persuasive.
Customers need to imagine your product to simulate the value they would receive from it (refer to my book Imagine Reading This Book).
Therefore, describe cookies in terms of “bags” or “pieces” (rather than “ounces” or “grams”) to help people visualize this experience (Monnier & Thomas, 2022).
Or write concrete instructions:
- Vague: Sign up for an account
- Concrete: Create a username and password
You can apply this technique in your own life. Stop writing vague tasks in your calendar: What does ”study” mean? Study chemistry? Memorize notecards? Read a textbook?
Instead, write a concrete task – Review past exams – so that you can visualize this behavior. If you can visualize the behavior, it will seem easier to do.
The takeaway: Scan your marketing materials…website…sales pages to replace vague words with concrete terms.
Vague benefits will harm your copy.
Don’t Say: quality, powerful, high-performance, fast, easy, reliable, durable, revolutionary, premier, best, excellent
Try visualizing those words.
You’re probably struggling because each word has different interpretations. The term “durable” can mean:
- Material: Is it strong material? Why is it strong? How strong?
- Impact: Can it withstand damage? How much damage?
- Weight: Is it heavy and stable? Why is stability important?
- Lifespan: Will the product last? How long?
Write concrete benefits that portray a single idea. Why is your software “easy” to use? Does it offer minimal features? Is the interface beautiful? Is the onboarding quick? Can you automate tasks? Can novices use it?
While chatting with customer support, you might hear: I can’t add a new product to your order. But you can cancel the current order, and then add a new item.
However, this specialist should customize these examples: I can’t add those jeans to your order. But you can cancel the shoes, and then add the jeans to your order.
Custom responses are more persuasive (Packard & Berger, 2021).
Or consider a clothing store. If a customer is trying a shirt, the salesperson could say:
- THAT looks great!
- That TOP looks great!
- That SHIRT looks great!
- That GREEN TEE-SHIRT looks great!
Each subsequent example instills a more concrete image.
Look for placeholder words in your copy, and replace them:
- Vague: This service can…
- Concrete: This website audit can…
Versatility can backfire.
Compare these two insurance plans:
- Death by terrorism
- Death by any reason
The second plan is economically better, but people preferred the first plan because they could imagine this scenario (Johnson, Hershey, Meszaros, & Kunreuther, 1993).
Selling food containers? Don’t force customers to think of applications. Replace “food” with concrete examples: soups, sauces, stews, meats, fruits, veggies.
Selling copywriting services? You might list broad services – landing pages, product descriptions, emails – but these applications are insufficient because customers still need to think of examples. Mention specific types of emails: product launches, onboarding sequences, promotional discounts, newsletters.
Read this sentence:
- If you win the lottery, what would you do?
You just read an IF-THEN statement. Even though the IF portion is hypothetical, winning the lottery now feels more realistic because you imagined this scenario.
Running a giveaway contest? Ask people what they would do if they won the prize or money. This imagery will entice them to participate because they will feel more likely to win.
But this technique can work in any scenario:
- If you [desired behavior], how would…
- If you watch this course…
- If you work with our team…
- If you create an account…
. . . if–then statements trigger a mental simulation process in which people suppose the antecedent (if statement) to be true and evaluate the consequent (then statement) in that context . . . evaluating a conditional will heighten belief in its antecedent more than in its consequent (Hadjichristidis et al., 2007, p. 2052).
Negative frames depict the absence of events. Our product:
- …doesn’t leak.
- …has no BPA.
- …won’t scratch your car.
Good intentions? Yes. Persuasive? No.
Negative frames are harmful because they depict the negative event (Jacoby, Nelson, & Hoyer, 1982). It resembles the phrase: Don’t think of a pink elephant. People read the previous sentence by imagining a pink elephant.
Therefore, write sentences that depict pleasant events.
- Negative: Our cream won’t hurt your skin.
- Positive: Our cream is soft and gentle on your skin.
If you need to mention the absence of an unpleasant event, morph this word into a positive framing:
“Doesn’t leak” generates an image of something leaking, but “leak-proof” generates an image of durable material.
Your brain is a web of knowledge. Activating one concept will activate concepts that are connected to it (Collins & Loftus, 1975).
Read these words: DEEP, SALTY, FOAM
These ideas are related to SEA. While reading those words, you activated the concept of SEA because of “spreading activation” (Topolinski & Strack, 2008).
Apply this idea technique in your writing. In the previous sentence, I replaced “idea” with “technique” because this word has a stronger relationship with “apply.”
Fill your sentences with semantically related words so that every concept becomes more activated. Selling a coffee brewer? You could say:
- If you make coffee…
- If you brew coffee…
Not only is “brew” more vivid, but it also relates to “coffee.” Reading “brew” activates the idea of “coffee” even before you reach this word. This syntax will be easier to read, more enjoyable, and more truthful (see Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009).
You typically see causes before effects.
And that’s why active sentences are better:
- Active: Tim hugged Greg.
- Passive: Greg was hugged by Tim.
Active sentences unfold seamlessly with each new word.
Passive sentences unfold in reverse. Your brain needs a placeholder to represent the subject:
Passive voice can be helpful when you need to emphasize the object of a sentence. Otherwise, write active sentences.
Likewise, begin sentences with something concrete. Avoid vague words:
- There are _____
- This is _____
Vague words are hazy and intangible, thereby obscuring the subject or protagonist of the sentence.
“Coherence markers” bind sentences together:
- Additive: and, or
- Temporal: then, next
- Adversative: but, though
- Causal: because, so
These words maintain the seamless flow of imagery. Without them, your sentences remain disconnected from each other.
Researchers compared two ads for Dove:
- No Markers: 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.
- Coherence Markers: 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.
Readers preferred the second version (Kamalski, 2007).
Causal markers (because, so) are especially persuasive because they signal justification. Many people operate on autopilot – subconsciously, they look for words like “because” to determine whether a behavior is justified (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978).
You might be tempted to end sentences with prepositions:
- What time are you leaving at?
- What are you waiting for?
- Where did you come from?
Sure, those sentences are grammatically correct. But they’re ugly.
Left dangling at the end of a sentence, prepositions feel jarring because readers expect something to appear after them.
However, the reciprocal variation might be worse (e.g., at what time are you leaving). Instead, say:
- When are you leaving?
- Why are you waiting?
- Where were you?
Each sentence begins and ends with a concrete word.
Read these sentences:
- The knife is in front of the pot. The glass is behind the dish. The pot is on the left of the glass.
Confusing, right? Each sentence requires a new mental image.
But if we swap the last two sentences:
- The knife is in front of the pot. The pot is on the left of the glass. The glass is behind the dish.
Much better. A single narrative is unfolding across these sentences.
. . . subjects try to integrate each incoming sentence into a single coherent mental model (Ehrlich & Johnson-Laird, 1982, p. 296).
Ease readability by adjoining the end of a sentence with the beginning of the next sentence.
Read the bold portion from this description of a kitchen bundle:
From a microwave oven, coffee maker, mini refrigerator, serveware and utility cart to help you prepare and serve food to wall decals, rugs and letterboards to bring decorative flair to your space, this dorm room kitchen collection ensures your limited space is effectively utilized.
That bold portion translates into this image:
Arrange your words so that one – and only one – interpretation is possible. Otherwise, readers need to decipher the intended meaning, which slows their reading speed and obscures the message.
Linguistic traits convey meaning.
For example, prices seem numerically larger if the font size is larger (Coulter & Coulter, 2005). You think: Hmm, something feels big, It must be the price.
Same with copywriting. Read this sentence from a coffee brewer:
- The K-Mini® brewer is effortlessly simple to use – just add fresh water to the reservoir, pop in your favorite K-Cup® pod, press the brew button and enjoy fresh brewed, delicious coffee in minutes.
The message? Brewing coffee is simple. The problem? This sentence is long and complex.
If you want to portray a process as quick and simple, you need a sentence that – itself – is quick and simple. Like this version:
- The K-Mini® brewer is simple to use: Just add water, pop in your favorite pod, and press the brew button. Enjoy fresh brewed, delicious coffee in minutes.
Readers will conceptualize the bold portion as the steps. And this portion feels much shorter than the previous version.
Always match your linguistic traits with the intended meaning. Want to portray…
- …a variety of features? Insert a variety of words.
- …consistent quality? Repeat a phrase.
- …fun experience? Insert words that are fun to say (e.g., hullabaloo, bamboozle, whippersnapper).
You group objects that are close together:
Same with words. While reading sentences, you don’t translate individual words into a mental image. You translate clusters of words.
For example, researchers tested language near a price: They placed “$199” near the phrase “high-performance.” In this arrangement, readers translated the collective entity ($199 and high) into a single image, which made the price seem higher (Coulter & Coulter, 2005).
Always consider the distance between words.
- Customers find that the chair is comfortable.
- Customers find the chair comfortable.
The chair seems more comfortable in the second version. Why? Because readers merge “chair” and “comfortable” into a cluster, and they translate this entity into a mental image. In the first version, these two words are separated from each other, so they generate distinct images.
Read this slogan:
- Bufferil eases pain
Subconsciously, this slogan feels pleasant because each word is positioned in alphabetical order (King & Auschaitrakul, 2020). Something just feels right, and you misattribute this feeling to the product.
Compare these sentences:
- John painted houses.
- John was painting houses.
People who read “was painting” believe that John painted more houses (and spent more time painting; Matlock, 2011). “Painted” depicts the completed job, whereas “was painting” depicts the ongoing work.
During a criminal trial, an attorney could say:
- The defendant pointed the gun.
- The defendant was pointing the gun.
If juries hear the second version, they’re more likely to convict because they can imagine the defendant pointing the gun.
Humans crave variety.
Eating the same food – even if you enjoy it – will eventually become repetitive and boring (Rolls, Rolls, Rowe, & Sweeney, 1981).
Same with writing. Readers lose interest if they encounter the same linguistic traits, so inject variety:
- Words. Readers prefer a mixture of words (Hosman, 2002).
- Lengths. Let’s write short sentences. Notice how the writing seems fine. Heck, it might seem engaging. But soon you’ll notice something. This writing is becoming repetitive. Your brain wants a change. It wants a long sentence. These short sentences are boring. So let’s read a long sentence. Notice how this long sentence feels refreshing and invigorating because of its lengthy prose—it feels like you’re breathing air for the first time during this paragraph.
- Emotion. Researchers analyzed 4,000+ movies and 30,000+ articles, and they found that content is more successful when it shifts unpredictably between different emotions (Berger, Kim, & Meyer, 2021).
While reading, you experience inner speech: You speak the words inside your head.
Therefore, write with phonetic flow: If something is hard to say – Red leather, yellow leather – it will be hard to read, even if the written syntax looks normal.
How can you write with flow? You should AVOID:
- Words with Similar Beginnings. People are slower to read a sentence like: The sparrow snatched the spider swiftly off the ceiling (McCutchen, Bell, France, & Perfetti, 1991). This patio set includes “sling-style seating” and “space-saving storage” – which are examples to avoid.
- Words With Similar Endings. You should avoid “sling seating” too because these words repeat the same -ing ending. “Sling chairs” would be better.
- Similar Adjoiners. You should avoid “chairs sling” because these words share an “s” between them.
- Groups of Many Small Words. Avoid a headline like: “Free you up to do the things you love.” It has a long string of small words.
Your inner speech has vocal traits.
For example, you read slower or faster based on the author of the passage (and how fast they speak; Alexander & Nygaard, 2008).
Punctuation matters, too. Inner speech is more emphatic for exclamation points, which can sound weird in mundane contexts:
- I sat down!
It seems obvious, yet marketers insert these marks into mundane contexts – Buy Now! – to trigger excitement. Despite good intentions, this syntax can backfire because readers need to exclaim these trivial statements, which – inevitably – feels weird. Visitors then misattribute this negative emotion to the decision: Hmm, something doesn’t feel right. It must be the product.
I would avoid exclamation marks altogether. If you need an exclamation mark to convey excitement, then your writing isn’t exciting enough. Readers should feel this emotion without being prodded by the punctuation.
Customers buy kitchen appliances for different reasons: Some want functionality, others want aesthetics.
How can you solve this problem?
- Solution 1: Create different brands for each segment.
- Solution 2: Push segments toward different versions of your copy.
Do you sell presentation software?
On your website, you could create a separate page for each segment (e.g., teachers, managers, speakers, students) so that everyone arrives on a page that describes their exact needs. Despite multiple segments, your copy can still be laser-focused on specific individuals.
People are less likely to comply if they believe that you are trying to persuade them (Brehm, 1966).
Therefore, hide your persuasive motive by emphasizing their freedom to choose. In one study, people donated 4x more money after hearing the phrase: but you are free to accept or refuse (Guégen & Pascual, 2000).
Compare these sentences:
- Tim was sitting in a soft chair.
- Tim sank endlessly in his soft chair.
Each sentence has a different meaning:
- Tim was sitting in a soft chair. This statement asserts that the chair is soft. In order to trust this statement, you need to trust the person saying these words. Skeptical readers might suspect the opposite: The chair is hard.
- Tim sank endlessly in his soft chair. This statement implies that the chair is soft. Here, the reciprocal version is less harmful. Skeptical readers might assume that Tim didn’t sink endlessly into his chair…but they still believe the chair is soft.
Smart customers will always consider reciprocal versions of statements. Read this sentence:
- Our product is safe
Cautious buyers will consider the reciprocal intention—our product is unsafe—to protect themselves if the marketer is lying. Therefore, describe benefits indirectly to bypass these harmful reciprocals.
Communicate safety with certifications, endorsements, and indirect language so that readers infer your product is safe without relying on your assertion. With inferences, customers — themselves — become the source of information.
- Tide will clean your clothes really well. Customers think: Hmm, does it clean clothes really well? Can I trust this person?
- The freshness of the outdoors. Now in liquid form. Customers think: Hmm, freshness of the outdoors? What does that mean? Must be brisk and refreshing.
In the second example, readers generate the meaning. And, naturally, they trust themselves more than marketers.
Readers prefer “two-sided arguments” that describe the benefits and drawbacks of a message (Rucker, Petty, & Brinol, 2008).
That’s why Amazon shows positive and negative reviews.
Readers feel more comfortable buying this product because the decision feels more cautious and informed.
Do you ever use rhetorical questions – like this one? You should. Rhetorical questions are persuasive (Petty, Cacioppo, & Heesacker, 1981).
Why? Because they generate an implicit response:
Rhetorical questions tend to invite a response from the message recipient, over or otherwise…[This] may increase the certainty of one’s attitudes through an implicit response (Blankenship & Craig, 2006, p. 124)
Readers become more engaged, and they evaluate your message more carefully.
Consider two messages in a hospital bathroom:
- Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.
- Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.
Staff were more likely to wash their hands after reading the second message (Grant & Hofmann, 2011).
People are optimistic. Even if your product will prevent something negative, people won’t expect this negative event to occur. Your product will seem unnecessary.
Does your product reduce the likelihood of car accidents? Nobody expects a car accident to happen, so they might feel unmotivated to buy it. Describe how this decision (or lack thereof) will impact other people. Suddenly readers are no longer gambling their own safety – they are gambling the safety of their family and loved ones.