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How to write persuasively

As a Creative, your job is a peculiar contradiction. It is a weird mix of two disciplines that are rarely compatible: art and business.

If you are working in a Creative department it is your job to be creative. And your social responsibility not to add to the ugly, anti-intellectual pollution that already surrounds us. However, clients don’t pay us to create a Turner Prize work. They don’t pay us to write heart-stoppingly elegant prose. Shit! They don’t even pay us to be original. All they want is something that increases their sales by a margin larger than the agency fee.

This document is intended to help you make ads more responsive without sacrificing the need for great ideas.

Want to buy a second hand advert?
We’re just salesmen. And our job is all the harder because we don’t even have the benefit of seeing the whites of the customer’s eyes. Therefore, every tool we can use to make our argument more persuasive has got to be a good thing.

I don’t know if you know many salesmen. Real Ford Mondeo, boxy-briefcase-full-of-samples kind of salesmen. These people have a tough job. All their competitors are producing much the same product and they have to persuade the potential customer to choose theirs. Which is why they listen to motivational speakers and read books on how to improve their sales techniques.

These are exactly the types of books that are avoided by nearly all Creatives. I’d like to let you into a few psychological secrets from them that will help you create more persuasive pieces of communication. And the great news is you can use the same principles to persuade the client or account group to buy your work.

Face it. People don’t like you.
You’ve only got a couple of seconds to make an impression. And you’re starting on the back foot. You are an unwelcome intruder into your audience’s time. They haven’t picked up the magazine to read your advert. Your 30 second radio spot is just delaying the start of the next song. You’d better give them a reward for invading their life.

Charm their socks off. Be magnetic. Seduce them with wit and charm and show them that reading on will be a worthwhile experience. If you’re self-conscious or dull in the way you communicate your message, no-one will want to hear the rest of your sales spiel. Just giving them lots of dry facts isn’t persuasive. It’s emotional triggers that cause a person to buy, not rational ones.

Become a teacher
Tell them something they never knew before. Believe it or not, people love to learn. Supply them with facts that they can remember and recite at the pub. Did you know that every month Thames Water removes over a ton of pubic hair from its water treatment plants? Did you know that it’s physically impossible to lick your own elbow? If you educate people in an interesting way, you’ve got their attention.

Punch them in the eye
I wouldn’t solely rely on this one but a striking visual can stop people long enough for them to listen to your message. But only do this if it is relevant to what you are communicating. We’re probably not talking about an exquisite piece of delicate photography or a deft piece of minimalist brushwork. Remember that very few people will regularly go to art galleries but everyone slows down to look at a car crash. Advertisers learned long ago that people like to ogle. That’s why sex is used so often in advertising.

Give them a warm feeling inside
If people are going through a pleasurable experience when they read your ad, they will associate the product being advertised with good feelings. Likewise if they are going through a bad experience. So maybe doing that guerrilla campaign in the viewing room of a mortuary isn’t a great idea.

Because a reader travels through your ad in a certain order, with the client’s logo being what they are left with, you can benefit from this effect. Most good creative ads leave the reader with a connection to make themselves. The very act of making this link will leave them with a sense of satisfaction. Also communicating in a witty way will leave them with a smile on their face. And showing an under-clad nymph will produce a pleasant rush of hormones. These are all nice feelings you can cash in on to encourage people to see your client in a more favourable way.

Expose yourself in public
This is not really one that Creatives have any control over. Research proves that the more a viewer is subjected to communication from a company, the more favourably they will view them. As long as the work doesn’t irritate the hell out of them, that is. That’s why you just see logos on hoardings by the sides of sporting grounds.

Yo homeboy! Get down to this bitchin’ section!
The psychological technique for building rapport with someone in a face-to-face situation involves matching their body language, pace of speech and vocabulary. So the words, visuals and tone of copy that we adopt are vital in reaching a niche market. They will then become more generic as the target market becomes less defined.

Branding is simply the personality of a product or company. This personality has to be like-able to the market we are trying to reach or else we’ll struggle to get their sympathy.

Can I ask you a small favour?
If you’re doing Direct Response try this little trick. If you ask someone to do something small for you, they are far more likely do something bigger, like buy the product.

This is thanks to something psychologists call Cognitive Dissonance. If you get someone to do something for you they presume that they must be doing it because they like you. So, whatever their initial opinion of you, their mind raises it to make sense of the fact that they are performing a favour for you. They are then more likely to do something else you ask because they have stronger feelings for you. Try testing this effect on account handlers before you present them with daring work.

Once they’re moving, keep them moving
Sir Isaac Newton noted that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest. This applies to Direct Response and Relationship Marketing, too. You need to use the law of inertia to get your responders to perform increasingly large tasks for you. From using a coupon, to filling in a questionnaire, to buying the product to recommending it to others. Leave too long between the steps and they’ll lose interest.

Hey, I’ve got bad eyesight and I’m overweight
Clients are terrified of showing any flaws. But done properly exposing a weakness can be a powerful way of gaining more favour in the eyes of their market. A few years ago Skoda did this beautifully by focussing their communications around their poor image. It worked. I wrote a press ad for them and then went straight out and bought the car!

Admitting a flaw, and maybe even apologising for it, is a way of showing humanity, Portraying yourself as unshakably perfect elevates you above your readers and makes you look arrogant. People will find it easier to buy into a message if it is given to them on their level.

I’m convinced that this point is better than the one after it
People admire positive attitudes because they wish they could be like that. Don’t say anything negative if it can be turned around to something positive. If you want to compare a product to the competition, say what’s better about your product rather than what’s shoddy about the other one.

Read this paragraph while it’s still available
People put more value on what is exclusive. Have you ever noticed how those porcelain ornament adverts in the back of Sunday supplements always seem to be advertising limited editions? It’s because it sells more tat. I recently read about a furniture shop that put sold signs on furniture that’s still available because it attracts more interest. When people ask about the unavailable settee, the shop has a look in the store to see if there is another just like it. Which just so happens to be the one they’re looking at.

Please make a selection from the following three paragraphs
You would naturally think that giving someone lots of options would be motivating. But the opposite is true. If there are too many options available an individual will be paralysed with indecision. In their mind, there is more chance of them making a wrong decision.

Limit their options. Give them a choice of red or black. Let them decide whether you deliver it tomorrow or next Monday. If you do get them to choose from a myriad of options, there is a greater chance they will change their mind at a later date.

I am unfortunately having to deal with the consequences of an account handler taking a wide selection of ads to the client. We are now onto our third choice and I am forced into writing my third piece of body copy and putting a third layout through the studio. What a waste of time and money! In an agency situation, the more options you present a client with, the less confident you look. You actually devalue your professional judgement because you weren’t certain enough about any concept to slap it down on the table a shout “This is the one!”

Read the following before 5pm tomorrow
Another way of making what you are offering harder to get, and therefore more attractive, is to put a deadline on your offer. This motivates people to act now rather than put the decision off because they’ve got plenty of time to act. And plenty of time to forget about it.

These next sentences are worth £3 million
If you don’t indicate the value of what you are selling, the reader will estimate the value themselves. If your product costs more than they’ve estimated, you’ll likely lose the sale. Give your product a high value. If you reduce it later, the customer will feel as if they have a great deal.

I want you to read this paragraph
People do what you expect them to do. Write as if you know they’ll buy the product, pick up the phone or whatever. There is a far better chance that they will.

Become a better Creative in three easy steps
Studies have found that when a person doesn’t want to do something, they mentally break it down into more and smaller elements.

If you don’t enjoy washing dishes you’ll turn on the tap, wait till the water’s hot, put the plug in the sink, squeeze in some washing up liquid, put the cap back on the bottle and return it to the cupboard, etc., etc. As a salesman I’d say you add a dash of washing up liquid to some hot water, wash your dishes and appreciate the brilliant shine.

To sell a process to someone, just chunk the information into fewer and larger steps. Your job is to make it as simple as possible for the reader to wrestle their wallet from their pocket and use it to buy what you’re selling.

Oh, and one last thing
If you ever watch those American-style infomercials in satellite TV, you’ll notice that they always go “and not only do you get all this for $1.99, we’ll also give you this handy pocket-sized sewing machine worth $25.”
This extra value incentive really works. People love to get a deal. If they are undecided about your offer and you throw this one in, it may just be enough to persuade them to pick up the phone and read out their credit card number.

You’ll love the way this section makes you feel about yourself
People like you more if you make them feel good about themselves. If you have quite a tightly segmented market you can probably find something complimentary to say about that group. Women have less car accidents than men. Older people know the value of manners. A little bit of flattery can get you somewhere if you use it sparingly.

While you’re reading this, why not send me £100
The language we use can help us be more persuasive. It is a good idea to help the reader mentally picture themselves following through on your request. Saying “While you’re ordering online you can see our very latest stock” will be more effective than saying “When you go online you can also see our very latest stock”. It’s subtle, but if it improves response without dirtying your ad then it’s got to be worth it.

The 12 magic words
Lastly, I’ll leave you with a list of the 12 most persuasive words for selling. Use these, or their synonyms to give your copy the best chance of earning its keep.

  • Discover
    Even adults would love to find Narnia in a yoghurt carton at the back of the fridge. Discovery is exciting and fresh.
  • Easy
    People don’t want to prise their back side from the settee unless they have to. If you can show them how they can use less muscles to do something, they’ll be interested. Don’t just use the word, tell them how it’ll save them time, effort or hassle.
  • Guarantee
    This removes the risk of trying something new. It doesn’t just have to mean you’re offering a refund; you can guarantee to be there for them or guarantee that they’ll be completely satisfied. It shows that you have no doubts about what you are offering.
  • Health
    People want to look after themselves. Even if you’re a 20 stone, Jerry Springer-watching lard-arse, you still have the instinct for self-preservation. Remember that health isn’t just physical. The product you are selling may be able to reduce stress and in turn blood pressure.
  • Care
    Reach for the sick bag. There are a lot of companies that give a hollow “we care” message, delivered by a handsome besuited perma-tan man with an insincere smile. If you use this message, make sure you back it up or it will ring false.
  • Money
    Even Donald Trump jumps at the chance to save money. People like to get a bargain because it makes them feel smart.
  • New
    Being ‘new’ rings a number of bells for the consumer. Things that are new are usually better. I don’t think Windows 2000 would have sold so well if it wasn’t an improvement on Windows 98. Getting something that’s new also means the individual can be one of the first to get their hands on the product. And that brings them some kudos. ‘New’ has an exciting discovery element to it. Put it in a big red tasteless flash at the top of your next ad and see what happens.
  • Proven
    Like guarantee, saying this minimises the risk for the customer. They presume that the insurance policy you’re selling has been poked in the eyes of all the right rodents without too much ill effect. If your product has been tested by some respected third party, it may be worth saying so.
  • Results
    People want a product that works. That’s why they are parting with their money. Tell the reader all about the miraculous effect of what you’re selling. Or, even better, show them.
  • Safety
    The reader doesn’t want your microwave pizza to be garnished with toxic waste. They don’t want their lifetime’s investment to vanish on an all-or-nothing stockmarket gamble. Reassure the poor souls. Let them know they won’t lose an eye.
  • Save
    Yes, saving money is great. But you can also save hassle, time, and energy. And the whale.
  • You
    I’m sure you already know that this is the most powerful word in the English language. Use it liberally in your copy. It personalises your message and gets the reader mentally involved. Don’t ham it up, though, or you’ll end up sounding like a cheap car salesman (“Well, David. The minute you walked in, David, I could tell this was the car for you David.”)

This list isn’t exhaustive but I hope it gives you more of an understanding of how the sales process works in the consumer’s mind. If you find it helpful, or even if you reckon it’s a load of old bunk, please drop me a line or leave a comment.


Leave a Comment
  1. Tramadol_Soancecal / Oct 26 2008 5:41 pm

    Your Web Site is really wonderful and I bookmarked it. Thank your for the hard work you must have put in to create this wonderful facility. Keep up the excellent work!

  2. saminthemoon / Feb 13 2009 10:33 am

    Another good word is ‘actually’

  3. Bernice Burnside- Bvisible / Apr 14 2010 10:30 pm

    Inspiring again and very useful! Although I’m left with a very strong disturbing image of the Thames Water treatment plant.

  4. Andrea Neidle / Mar 10 2011 4:44 pm

    Good to know that I’m still giving the right info in my Get into Advertising workshops!
    Great blog – invaluable advice.
    Think I will start drinking bottled water …


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