Andy Maslen

5 May 2015

Persuasive copywriting: how stories, emotions and the brain make decisions for us

If you want to persuade somebody, you have to know what they want. And here’s a tip: it’s never what you’re selling.

It has been said that people don’t want quarter-inch drill bits, they want quarter-inch holes.

People don’t want quarter-inch holes

But do they? Or do they want to hang up their paintings without worrying they’ll fall off the wall in the middle of the night?

In other words, just banging on about benefits isn’t enough. OK, it’s enough to get some sales. But it’s not enough to get maximum sales.

Before I go on any further, let me reiterate a point I made in my first book – Write to Sell. By ‘selling’ I mean getting somebody – your reader – to do, feel or think something they weren’t doing, feeling or thinking before they read your copy.

That means all social media posts, content, corporate communications, marketing and advertising are covered. In digital, print and broadcast forms.

Your customer isn’t a moron, she’s a human being

Here’s the thing. Consumers are people. And people are human beings. And human beings are creatures of emotion.

Yes, our brains are massive, with a pre-frontal cortex capable of the most amazing feats of abstract thinking. But they have another feature that yields the clue we need to understanding human behaviour. The limbic system.

The brain's limbic system

The limbic system is the old, primitive part of the brain. It’s also known as the lizard brain. It has a number of discrete structures within it, including the olfactory bulbs, which are responsible for our sense of smell, and the amygdala, which plays a role in modulating anxiety.

The limbic system, emotion and decision-making

When we experience emotions, our limbic system is highly active: our advanced brain – ‘the old grey matter’ is largely silent. And here’s the kicker: in the moment we make a decision, it is our limbic system that fires up. A split second later, the pre-frontal cortex gets in on the act, weighing up information, rationalising, analysing the decision. But the decision has already been made.

The implications of this neurological sequence are clear for copywriters. We must engage the reader’s emotions if we are to secure action. So what are the primary emotions and how can we engage them?

We have six big, hairy-arsed emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, disgust and surprise. There are secondary emotions like jealousy or envy and tertiary, or ‘social’, emotions like malaise or wellbeing.

I wanna tell you a story…

Happily, there is a very simple method of engaging our reader’s emotions. All we need to do is tell them a story. Human beings have evolved to be highly responsive to storytelling. Current anthropological and psychological thinking is that storytelling evolved as an effective way of passing on codes of conduct and ways of staying safe.

Those who told, and listened to, stories survived longer than their uninterested peers, and passed more of their genes into the next generation.

There are a few things to remember about effective storytelling. Despite the best efforts of so-called corporate storytellers, stories need heroes, and heroes are people. Or at least individuals; so rabbits and dinosaurs are OK. Brands don’t make good heroes because they are by their nature impersonal. Brands can’t act. People can.

Stories also need conflict. If Jack had stayed at home and the giant’s gold had just rained down on him from the sky there wouldn’t have been a story. In a marketing context, conflict is simple: it’s the unfulfilled need, the charity worker’s challenge, the executive’s search for enlightenment.

And stories need change. This again is an easy win for copywriters. I’d usually advise writing about the change that happens when the hero ‘buys’ the product.

“Life with the product”

Are there other techniques that engage the reader’s emotions? Of course. One of the simplest is to show them what their life would be like if they were to buy the product. You paint word pictures, using your sharpest creative writing skills, so they can experience a future in which they’ve done, felt or thought what you wanted them to.

Or you can ask them questions. Have you ever wondered whether you could be earning more as a copywriter? Why do some people seem to have all the luck? Are you ready to embrace your own creativity? This type of question naturally taps into people’s emotions, but you have to do your work in advance, figuring out what motivates your reader.

Does all this emotion mean reason takes a back seat?

Lest you worry that everything you have learned about copywriting so far is off the money, let me reassure you. It isn’t.

Of course people need information. About the product, the content, the brand or whatever else you’re selling. But they need it to rationalise their buying decision, not to prompt it.

And remember, we like to believe we are highly evolved, rational creatures. We’d never do anything as animalistic as make a decision based solely on emotion. So by giving your reader reasons to buy and not just feelings, you are allowing them to convince themselves that buying is indeed a reasonable thing to do.

Let me close with a story from my book Persuasive Copywriting. It’s from the foreword, written by Dr Sian Lewis, a neuroscientist. She says, comparing the motive force of emotion and reason, that if you felt terrified of a hungry bear coming towards you, you would probably run faster than if you merely knew, “That bear wants to eat me”.

In other words, emotion beats reason.


Hear more from Andy on this topic at the PCN’s Copywriting Conference, 9 October 2015. Andy will be running the Secrets of persuasive copywriting breakout session.

  • The brain's limbic system

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