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 saying the right thing at the right time to 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.
That’s why yuo cna stlil raed tihs esaily, and why, even if speech is highly distorted, we still know exactly what’s being said. Indeed, human speech has evolved to be distinguishable from background noise.
Little wonder, then, that some words grab our attention and others go ignored.
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
Surprisingly, some of our simplest words are the most potent.
- 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.
- New. While research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that recognised, trusted brands activate areas of the brain associated with positive emotional processing and rewards, we also can't resist new, shiny things. It's a marketer's job to balance this sense of trust with the excitement and uncertainty of novelty.
- 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'.
- Facebook posts saying 'comment', 'tell us', 'discount'.
- LinkedInposts with 'under budget', 'on time', 'improved', 'increased'.
- Google+ posts containing 'share', 'promote', 'discover', 'create'.
What do you notice about the words above?
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.
Though still very popular – indeed, the words can convince people that the products are healthier and tastier than the alternatives – such products are increasingly being debunked and mocked. Why?
Persuasive language has a shelf life.
That is why some of the most enduring persuasive words are simple, direct and descriptive.
How to write persuasively
So how do you write persuasively? Deploy (sparingly) the persuasive words above and go back to basics:
- Talk for no longer than 30 seconds at any one time, says neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, and the same goes for writing. Fewer, shorter words and pithy sentences build trust.
- Use active language. Adverbs make you sound untrustworthy and clog up your copy – ‘punch in the belly’ is better than ‘hit forcefully in the belly’.
- Write positively. Using positive words and phrases is encouraging and engaging – it’s like smiling at your reader.