I once took a media communications course in which I discovered an interesting example of the way the mind works. I soon realized how this applies to copywriting as well.
As part of a given lesson, they showed a videotape of a televised newscast during which a journalist was about to give a live report on a forest fire devastating the mid-west.
The news anchor said: “We now take you to Sally Smith, reporting live from above the scene of the fire…”
He then turned around to face the background screen, which gave a live bird's-eye view of the raging fire, and asked: “Sally, tell us, how big is the fire?” In a voice partially drowned by the whizzing sound of helicopter blades, Sally reported:
“John, it's so big, it's covering well over 140 acres of land… that's about 200 football fields back-to-back for you and me.”
What is this telling you? A lot more than you think…
Mark Twain once said that “numbers don't stick in the mind, pictures do.”
People don't think in numbers. They don't think in words, either — unless they are told to do exactly that. The mind is like a computer and it hates confusion. It will naturally, often unconsciously, translate numbers, words, or phrases into their visual equivalent.
For instance, if I told you to think of a garbage can, you're not going to think of the word “G-A-R-B-A-G-E.” Your mind will automatically visualize a garbage can. Right?
Why do you think Windows and MacIntosh dominate in operating systems? It's because, rather than having to type an elaborate command for your computer to execute, you can simply use your mouse, hover over an icon, and then click it.
These icons basically represent a bunch of code. They contain a string of numerous commands that are in fact translated into a language the computer understands.
Our mind works in almost the same way. It instantly translates what it's being told into something it can easily understand. So if you want to steer the mind in the right direction so it can picture precisely what you intended, then give it something it can work with.
For example, rather than tell a story, describe it. Talk about the color, the texture, the sight, the sound. Everything that all the senses perceive. Look at it this way:
“Eat great spaghetti at Romano's restaurant tonight.”
Try this instead:
“Michael ate spaghetti so scrumptious, with its plump pasta and succulent, spicy Arrabiata sauce made with only the freshest ingredients and chef Roberto's secret recipe, that each morsel reminded him of walking down a trattoria-lined cobblestone street in the heart of Florence, Italy. He couldn't believe he could get something as delicious from a local restaurant, but that's the kind of tasty adventure chef Roberto offers you each night. Call Romano's to reserve your little Italian getaway this evening.”
In this example, I used what I call “Upwords.” Upwords are effective tools in any communication — whether it's a conversation, a presentation, or a written message — in that they help your audience better understand and appreciate your message.
In fact, the word “upwords” is an acronym that stands for universal picture words or relatively descriptive sentences. Upwords are examples, stories, analogies, metaphors, symbols, picture words, mental imagery, colloquialisms, similes, action verbs, etc.
Essentially, upwords are words, phrases, and expressions that help target audiences easily interpret messages. Even jargon, buzzwords, and colloquialisms are appropriate if they are acceptable to, and used frequently by, a target audience or industry.
For example, a challenge among cosmetic surgeons is the fact that people will call for a quote over the phone when obviously the doctor needs to see the patient beforehand.
In order to get that message across, and since surgery is an uncommon process, doctors will often use the more common dental work as an analogy. Why? Because unlike surgery, most people have had their teeth done at some point in their lives.
So they can say: “Like a dentist, I can not give an estimate over the phone without any x-rays of your teeth or the knowledge of how many cavities you actually have.”
Beauticians usually face the same problem. Many customers tend to shop around for these types of services. But since beauty is a subjective thing, then making a decision based on price alone can be detrimental to both the consumer and the business.
So, using art as an analogy, since art is just as subjective, beauticians can say: “A makeover is a makeover, just like a painting is a painting. But there's quite a difference between a preschooler's fingerpainting and a Rembrandt. Don't you agree?”
If you're a computer programmer trying to sell your services to the plant manager of a farm equipment manufacturer, and your presentation provided complex technical data in a language only geeks would understand, you obviously would do very poorly.
In this case, you must therefore mold your message in a way that it can be easily understood by farmers or plant workers. I'm not talking about dumbing your presentation down. I'm talking about choosing words or phrases your audience can easily relate to.
Different words mean different things to different people.
We all come from different backgrounds. Our education, experiences, and environment help to condition our thinking. The same word with a certain audience may mean something completely different to another — or, worse yet, mean absolutely nothing.
Therefore, don't be afraid to use analogies, metaphors, and picture words in your presentation to fit your audience's set of circumstances, mindset, beliefs, and perceptions.
As Jack Trout once said, “A word is worth a thousand pictures.”
Now, how do you apply this to your situation?
Last spring, I was watching television. As summer was right around the corner, the TV channel I was on aired a public service announcement for National Parks Canada.
The 30-second “commercial” centered on how to protect oneself from dangerous animals often found in Canada's wilderness — namely bears and wolves. The commercial targeted youngsters, particularly kids attending summer camp.
What was interesting in this public service announcement was not so much what the narrator said, but how he said it. Specifically, he used “upwords” to illustrate a point.
The sentence that caught my attention was this one: “Kids, be safe by staying away from animals. If you see one, stand back at least three bus lengths.”
The narrator didn't say “105 feet” (assuming a bus is about 35 feet long). Instead, he used an object children watching the announcement could easily recognize…
… And that's a school bus.
That said, a challenge for many webmasters, web designers, marketers, and copywriters is to ensure a site communicates effectively to its audience. Studies have proven that most websites are misunderstood, or partially understood, by their audiences.
When the web was first created, the need to communicate in a language that the vast majority of people could understand was not important. Back then, technical terminology was commonplace since the Internet was mostly populated by programmers and geeks.
Today, however, things have changed.
A while ago, I was at a local computer store. Beside me was someone shopping for her first computer. I overheard the customer's questions and the sales clerk's explanations, and what struck me was that the shopper knew little, if anything, about computers.
Apparently, she never touched a keyboard in her life. What's more, after the clerk attempted to describe all the features and different applications of the computer, with a puzzled look on her face she replied with: “But can I send email with it?”
For better or worse, this is the reality of today's Internet population.
Today, particularly with the explosion of social media and sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, you name it, many users are computer novices to some degree — not programmers or geeks, and certainly not Internet marketers or online businesses.
That said, and specifically with web copy, even users who are technologically savvy can get confused by a poorly thought-out message. And few people will buy from a website that confuses them in the slightest. Some might even react negatively or hostilely.
So to better your chances, talk like your audience. Better still, think like your audience.
In order to use upwords effectively, first develop a “perfect customer profile.” As much as possible, discover and list the major characteristics of your target market, such as:
- Demographics: demographics are the basic characteristics of your market — or the largest segment of your market. Information such as age, gender, culture, industry, income level, marital status, and so on are all part of the mix.
- Psychographics: these include your market's behavioral and attitudinal qualities, such as purchase histories, buying patterns, trends, psychology, thought processes, interests and hobbies, associations to which your customers belong, etc.
- Geographics: these should include not only the locations in which your customers reside, but also the areas where they work, shop, visit, spend their vacations, etc.
- Technographics: the term “technographics” was originally coined by Forrester Research, which consists of your market's attitudes toward technology — their inclination to adopt or avoid new technology, such as computers and the Internet.
Researching these four categories will give you an excellent idea of who your target audience is. But don't stop there. Keep digging. Dig deeper. Essentially, the more you can learn about your market, the better the upwords you will choose.
Think about “a day in the life” of your perfect customer. What does she dream about at night? What keeps him awake? What's their biggest fears and desires? What's their biggest challenge or problem? And more importantly, how do they talk about it?
Once you've developed your perfect customer profile, it will then be easy for you to craft compelling copy your audience will quickly and fully understand, without the need to think. That's right, you don't want your audience to think. You want them to know.
What do I mean?
My friend and top copywriter Peter Stone said it best:
They say that in selling, you should strive for “the temporary suspension of disbelief.” But in copywriting, it's “the temporary suspension of critical thinking.”
Critical thinking leads to procrastination.
Look at it this way. Your challenge is to choose those words that will get your message across as effectively and efficiently as possible. The only “thinking” they really need to do is whether or not to buy from you, and not “er, what the heck did he mean?”
Remember, words are not the message — they are tools to help communicate it. So, the manner in which you encode your message (i.e., the words you choose to convey your message) is absolutely critical. To explain, here's an illustration:
Sender ► Encoding ► Message ► Decoding ► Receiver
Your objective, therefore, is to encode the message in a way that the chances of it being decoded and interpreted in the same way, as intended, are good if not higher.
To that end, you must first know your “receiver” — and if you've done your research, you do. Then, you must use the words that will help paint vivid pictures in her mind.
For example, if your market consists mainly of artists, then use art examples. If your market consists mostly of business managers, use business analogies. If your market consists largely of florists, use metaphors florists can understand.
Let's expand on the last one with an example. Say your site sells an email management software specifically geared toward florists. The copy might read as follows:
“Your customers' emails are like fresh-cut roses. You must handle them promptly and efficiently. If not, disgruntled customers can prick and hurt your business — or wither away, never to return.”
Granted, upwords can be a challenge for the less experienced writer. But by clearly defining your audience, you simplify the task of encoding your message by knowing, beforehand, how your audience will decode it, interpret it, and above all, act upon it.
Knowing how to reach your target audience begins with knowing who they are. The more you know about them, the more the process of writing compelling copy for them will be like “a walk in the park,” “a piece of cake,” or “as easy as pie…”
… Get the picture?