What copywriters can learn from NLP

Jackie Barrie

Jackie Barrie T/A Comms Plus

“What’s NLP?” you may be wondering.

NLP stands for neuro-linguistic programming. Neuro as in brain, linguistic as in language, and programming as in computers. That is, using the power of words to re-program the brain and change behaviour. Not a million miles away from copywriting, you may agree.

To some people, NLP is a dirty word (or acronym) because they see it as manipulative, but hey – isn’t that what all marketing is about?

I am fascinated by psychology and the power of language to influence and persuade, so, a few years ago, I qualified as an NLP Practitioner.

It’s a technique that is commonly used in the coaching world, and by the likes of Derren Brown and Paul McKenna. It’s fun to watch them on TV, and recognise what they are doing.

More usefully, my NLP training has affected the way I write copy for clients.
Brain scan

Sensory language

For example, it teaches that information only enters the brain via the five senses, and assumes that each individual favours one sensory modality over the others – some people are primarily visual, others are more auditory, while the rest are kinaesthetic (feelings). Olfactory and gustatory senses don’t apply in this context. To complicate matters, there is a sixth modality, ‘auditory digital’, which is that little voice you use when talking to yourself.

To generate rapport according to NLP theory, you should use language that suits the other person’s preferred communication style, whether V, A, or K.

  • Visual: “Do you see what I mean?”
  • Auditory: “Do you hear what I’m saying?”
  • Kinaesthetic: “Does that feel right to you?”

I know it’s good practice anyway, but this knowledge reminds me to use sensory language in all my copy, with the aim of connecting with the maximum number of readers.

Motivation strategies

Further, NLP proposes each person runs meta-programs in their brain. One example is towards/away – some people prefer to move towards a goal, while others prefer to move away from a problem, and some are equal.

People who buy insurance products have an ‘away’ motivation strategy, which is why it’s always sold as: “What would you do if… Your car was stolen… Your house burnt down… You suffer illness or injury and can’t work?”

People with a ‘towards’ motivation strategy rarely buy insurance because they assume nothing bad will ever happen to them. To appeal to them, you have to talk about the “peace of mind” they will achieve.

On the other hand, people who buy investment products have a ‘towards’ motivation strategy. The best way to reach them is to talk about the aspirational things that their savings could buy.

I had a telecoms client with a very strong ‘towards’ style. He insisted that every headline I wrote was about “adding to the bottom line”. I knew that many of his readers would have an ‘away’ approach, so I always ensured the body copy included something about “savings” as well.

Lots of choice v one right choice

Another NLP meta-program is options/procedures – some people like to make their own choices, while others prefer to be told what to do, and the rest are equal.

To find out which of these motivation strategies an individual displays in any given context, ask: “Why did you choose…?”

  • If they answer ‘why’ by giving a list of criteria, or describing opportunities and possibilities, they are ‘options’
  • If they answer ‘how’, by telling a story or describing events, they are ‘procedures’
  • Remember, some people will give a mixed answer, in which case they are both

Options people like alternatives so they can examine the reasons to buy and make their own decision. Procedures people like a single tried-and-tested answer, solution or process.

I ran a training course where I recommended a range of social media dashboards. The options people were pleased to explore each one and choose their favourite. But there was one delegate in the room who was strongly procedures. He insisted I tell him which would be right for his business – which was tricky for me, because I didn’t know enough about his business to make that decision.


As all copywriters know, every piece of our work has an objective. We write in a way that’s designed to make the reader take action – whether that is to visit a website, pick up the phone, make an appointment, download something, subscribe to something, sign a petition, or something else.

There was an experiment to assess anger levels when a researcher jumped the queue for the photocopier.

In the first stage, the researcher simply jumped the queue with no explanation. The nearer people were to the front of the queue, the angrier they became.

In the second stage, the researcher jumped the queue, saying something like: “Please may I go before you, because I have to make some copies for an urgent board meeting.” People let them in without any anger.

In the third stage, the researcher jumped the queue saying: “Please may I go before you, because I have to make some copies”. People let them in without any anger, despite the fact they hadn’t given a good reason. Simply the word ‘because’ was enough to make a difference.

This isn’t exactly NLP, but it does show why marketing copy should always use or imply the word ‘because’, and give reasons to buy.

Recent research shows that people are more likely to respond to the call to action when it is a visual button rather than a text link.

It’s also been found that they are more likely to click a button that says “Continue reading” rather than “Read more”. This is because it’s ‘bottom-up’ language that gives them power, rather than a ‘top-down ‘instruction from the organisation.

Whatever you think of it, it is clear we copywriters need to keep up-to-date with research findings from NLP and the wider field of psychology if we want to stay at the top of our game.

Sources: OU, INLPTA, Words that Change Minds by Shelle Rose Charvet, PSA

Photo credit: A brain – I has it via photopin (license)

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