Want to improve your writing? This guide offers 31 clever tricks based on research in psychology.
Active sentences are more persuasive than passive sentences:
- Passive: Interesting tactics are described in this article.
- Active: This article describes interesting tactics.
Passive sentences are grammatically complex because they position the subject – the doer of the action — later in the sentence. Your brain needs to insert a placeholder for this ambiguous subject, and then you need to retroactively update this placeholder when you discover the subject later in the sentence.
Positive frames describe the presence of something:
- Negative: Don’t be late.
- Positive: Arrive on time.
- Negative: Don’t drink heavily.
- Positive: Drink responsibly.
Negative frames require more mental resources (Jacoby, Nelson, & Hoyer, 1982). Use them occasionally, but lean toward positive frames more often.
Coherence markers are words that connect two ideas.
They usually depict a causal connection (e.g., but, therefore, so, as a result, that is why, consequently).
Compare these two ads for Dove.
- 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.
The second ad performed better (see Kamalski, 2007).
So keep those subtle connectors in your copy (like the “so” at the beginning of this sentence).
Visualize the following features: quality, powerful, reliable.
Having trouble? Me too.
That’s where metaphors can help:
“…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 & Zaltman, 2008, p. 35).
Metaphors bring abstract ideas into the sensory world. They provide readers with building blocks that can paint these mental images.
Your message becomes more persuasive when you strengthen the mere vividness of mental imagery. Compare these two insurance plans:
- Death by terrorism
- Death by any reason
In the second plan, people are covered by any reason—including terrorism — but, ironically, they found it less appealing (Johnson, Hershey, Meszaros, & Kunreuther, 1993).
Don’t ask sales prospects if they want to “chat” this week. This verb is abstract and vague. Instead, ask if they want to “Zoom” this week? Even if you don’t talk via Zoom, this word strengthens this mental imagery of the conversation.
Refer to my book Imagine Reading This Book for other ideas.
Scan your copy for generic claims:
- Our support team is fast
- Customers love us
- We have reliable software
Blah. Quantify those ideas:
- We’ll get you an answer in 24 hours
- 5,000+ companies love our software
- 100% uptime…guaranteed.
Your message becomes more believable and persuasive.
Also, use large numbers when possible. Don’t talk about the security flaw that harms “many” WordPress users. Search for the actual number of websites:
Now you have a better headline: 75 Million Websites Are Vulnerable to a Security Flaw in WordPress.
Numbers are abstract ideas:
Numeric information in general may be more difficult to evaluate because it is abstract, its meaning changes dramatically from one context to another (9°F versus 9 billion dollars versus 9% wrong on an exam; Peters et al., 2009, p. 4)
Bring numbers into the sensory world.
For example, people evaluated a hospital more effectively when numerical attributes were presented in a good/bad scale (Peters et al., 2009).
Follow this strategy with percentages:
- Don’t Say: 90% of people
- Say: 9 out of 10 people
Researchers presented the following messages to 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.
Twice as many clinicians refused to discharge Mr. Jones if they read the second message (even though it conveyed the same message; Slovic, Monahan, & MacGregor, 2000).
Readers prefer messages that contain a variety of words (Hosman, 2002).
You should still avoid complex language. Just incorporate simple — yet varied — word choices.
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).
Arguments are more persuasive when they describe benefits and drawbacks (Rucker, Petty, & Brinol, 2008).
That’s why Amazon shows positive and negative reviews:
Readers perceive these “two-sided arguments” to be more rational. They feel more comfortable joining your side because it seems like you chose a side carefully.
Plus, readers assume that those drawbacks are the only drawbacks. They become less likely to seek other negative information.
Humans were designed to avoid pain.
So…poke the wound. Describe how their actual state is worse than their ideal state (Bruner & Pomazal, 1988).
You either need to:
- Raise their ideal state
- Lower their actual state
Lowering their actual state might be more powerful. Opposing attitudes are stronger than supporting attitudes – e.g., political attitudes are strong when opposing a candidate (vs. supporting the other candidate; Bizer & Petty, 2005).
Writing copy for a productivity app? Don’t start with benefits. Start with negative emotions that readers experience from a lack of productivity:
- You feel stressed and overwhelmed
- 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. While feeling those negative emotions, they can appreciate the value of your solution more easily.
Readers prefer ingroup pronouns (e.g., us).
In one study, researchers paired nonsense syllables (xeh, yof, laj) with either “us” or “them.” Even though participants couldn’t remember the pairings, they preferred syllables that were paired with “us” (Perdue, Dovidio, Gurtman, & Tyler, 1990).
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, overt or otherwise…[This] may increase the certainty of one’s attitudes through an implicit response. (Blankenship & Craig, 2006, p. 124)
Consequently, people read your message more carefully.
Describe how inaction will affect other people.
Consider two messages in a hospital bathroom:
- Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.
- Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.
More staff washed their hands in the second frame (Grant & Hofmann, 2011).
Read these statements:
- Jennifer drinks coffee a lot
- Jennifer spends a lot of time indoors
- Jennifer watches baseball a lot
Those statements answer: What does Jennifer do?
Now, read these statements:
- Jennifer is a coffee-drinker
- Jennifer is an indoors person
- Jennifer is a baseball fan
Those statements answer: Who is Jennifer?
Not surprisingly, those second statements crafted a stronger perception of Jennifer (Walton & Banaji, 2004).
Don’t thank your customers for doing something (e.g., buying). Thank them for being something (e.g., a loyal fan). Those nouns are more powerful.
Avoid weak language—hedges, disclaimers, and tag questions. They reduce credibility (Blankenship & Holtgraves, 2005).
- I’m not positive, but…
- I’m not an expert, but…
- It could go either way, but…
- …don’t you think?
- …wouldn’t it?
Arguments seem stronger when you give reasons. Even the mere word “because” can strengthen your message (Langer, Blank & Chanowitz, 1978).
Use words that signal any justification:
- You should do XYZ, so that _______.
- You should do XYZ due to _______.
- Since _______, you should do XYZ.
Readers see those words, and they assume that your reasoning is justified.
You become full (or “satiated”) if you eat too much.
It happens with experiences, too. You need to reduce satiation by increasing the perceived variety of your assortment.
How? Try a technique called subcategorization:
…people satiate less if they categorize the consumption episodes at lower levels. For instance, as people ate more jelly beans, their enjoyment declined less quickly when the candy was categorized specifically (e.g., cherry, orange) rather than generally (e.g., jelly bean; Redden, 2008, p. 624)
Subcategorizing highlights differences within an activity, so it seems less repetitive.
In a follow-up study, people were more likely to continue studying if they categorized a broad “study” task into small units (e.g., study bio + study chem).
Perhaps you could describe features with your business name:
- Broad: “Acme can do XYZ”
- Subcategory: “Acme Automation can do XYZ…Acme Analytics can do ABC.”
Suddenly your features become separate entities, thereby increasing perceived variety. You get two benefits:
- Your assortment becomes more enticing for new customers
- You reduce satiation (and churn) for existing customers
Plus, those labels are great for SEO because of keyword co-occurrence. Search engines will associate your business (Acme) with those topics (Automation).