Words, words, words. We write them, read them, speak them and listen to them every day, yet words’ ability to persuade, elicit emotion and evoke colour, movement and texture tends to slip under the radar.
Persuasive words are the bread and butter of copywriting. We know (at least in theory) the importance of how to write the right thing at the right time for the right people.
But what actually makes particular words better than others at moving us, at persuading us to buy? Let's have a little poke around the brain and think about what makes some words so darn powerful.
The neuroscience of language
Our brain is highly attuned to identify language. Whether we’re listening to speech or reading the written word we can quickly identify the signal in the noise.
This is because we’re very good at recognising familiar patterns – we don’t need to read or hear the whole word to understand it.
Studies have found that just reading words associated with movement or smell also stimulates the motor and olfactory areas of the brain. Reading and thinking about running, for example, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running. This is why sensory language and metaphor are far more effective and memorable than purely descriptive language. Think about the difference between ‘he had tough hands’ and ‘he had hands like leather’.
And even the look and sound of a word can alter our perception of it.
When a 1921 advertising textbook asked which car – the 'Bromley' or the 'Brimley' – sounded larger and more powerful, the vast majority of respondents opted for the former. 'Brimley', spoken at the front of the mouth, sounds smaller, thinner and weaker than 'Bromley', spoken at the back of the mouth or throat.
Similarly, words containing fricatives, where the air stream from the mouth is not completely stopped (like s, v, f, z and th), are perceived to be smaller, lighter and faster than those containing plosives, where there is a complete closure in the mouth (like p, t, k, b, g and d).
Some of the most powerful words and phrases, therefore, are those that make you feel something; they trigger some hardwired emotional or physical response.
The 6 most persuasive words in the English language
You. The word 'you' or, better yet, your own name, is one of the most powerful words in marketing. Hearing our own name lights up specific, unique regions of our brain, calling us to attention and creating that personal touch. It should, however, be used with caution. Receiving an unsolicited promotional email or cold call that uses your name is creepy and invasive. Only use someone's name if they've given you their permission by signing up or filling in a landing page.
Free. We all love free stuff. Dan Ariely's famous Lindt Truffle versus Hershey's Kiss experiment found that when a group were offered the Truffle for 15 cents and the Kiss for 1 cent, 73 percent chose the former and 27 percent the latter. But when both prices were reduced by 1 cent – 14 cents for the Truffle, 0 cents for the Kiss – 69 percent went for the Kiss. So while we might turn our noses up at what we consider cheap, we can't pass up a steal.
Because. Give a reason for something and it seems far more appealing and authoritative, even if that reason is spurious, as Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer discovered. You always need to be pre-empting your customer's 'so what?'
Help. This is the backbone of content marketing. Customers are looking for you to answer their question or solve a problem.
Now. Words like 'now' and 'instantly' trigger our desire for instant gratification and put a time limit on offers and promotions. This can, however, also have a negative impact given the current preoccupation with mindfulness.
The most shareable words
These powerful words aren’t universally applicable though. The effectiveness of every word depends on its context.
The words that get content shared online, for instance, vary depending on the medium you use. If you want to get your content liked, shared and retweeted, try these:
Blog post headlines with the words 'science', 'surprising', 'smart', 'critical'.
Tweets containing 'please retweet', 'you', 'follow', 'new blog post', 'top'.
There are no long, exotic words or clever word play – they’re short, clear and to the point. You know exactly what to expect.
Now think of the ongoing fad for goods that are Fairtrade, artisanal, organic, craft, natural, chemical-free, etc. These descriptors range from the misleading to the downright nonsensical, and no one could tell you what they mean, yet people still snap up artisanal water and chemical-free shampoo.