The power of language

Experiment

People queued up to use a photocopier. The experimenters would ask to queue jump. When they asked: ‘May I use the copy machine?’ 60% of people let them go first.

When they asked: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine because I’m in a rush?’ This request coupled with a reason had a 94% success rate.

Surprisingly, when they asked: ‘Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine because I have to make some copies?’ resulted in 93% success.

Just using the word ‘because’ triggered most people into thinking there was a good reason, even when there wasn’t.

Source: Ellen Langer, Harvard social psychologist

So how can this lesson be applied to marketing copy?

Well, you have to give people a reason to take action. If you want them to buy your product or service, you have to give them a reason to want it. If you want them to visit your website, pick up the phone or send you an email, you have to give them a reason to do that.

Staying positive

It’s said that the brain doesn’t process negative words such as ‘not’. What happens when you tell a teenager: “Don’t slam the door!” They slam it, of course. What would happen if you said: “Please close the door quietly”?

Similarly, what happens if you tell a child: “Don’t touch that, it’s hot!” They touch it, and learn by their own mistakes. What would happen if you said: “Leave that alone, it’s hot”?

Positive language is more powerful.

Don’t panic!

I once received a letter from my doctor that started: ‘Don’t worry, you have not got cancer.’ What??? I hadn’t even known that they were testing me for cancer!!!
So what did I do? Of course, I immediately started worrying. (I was OK, by the way.)

Be direct

On the passenger information sign for South Eastern it reads: ‘You can help by…Reporting any unattended luggage (don’t be afraid to ask others if any luggage is theirs)’

Well, until I read that, it had never occurred to me to be afraid of the others. Now, I’m sitting there, and wondering who I should be afraid of and what I should be afraid about.

Why not rewrite it as: ‘If you see any unattended luggage, please:

– Ask your fellow passengers if it belongs to them

– Report it to a member of staff’

What’s the difference?

The original option uses the passive voice, and the alternative is more direct. Direct language is easier to follow (which is important, especially for a safety message like that, and where some of the readers may have English as a second language).

This is an extract from my first book, the Little Fish Guide to DIY Marketing, as published in my Write Right newsletter for Fresh Business Thinking

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