I was on a train that had ‘RAPE HER’ written in big red letters with an arrow pointing to a particular seat. It was a crowded carriage but the graffiti put an ugly thought into everyone’s heads and no-one wanted to sit there. Even though we didn’t want to read it, we couldn’t help ourselves.

On the other hand, I’ve been on trains in countries where I can’t read the language, and wondered what the graffiti says. Without meaning, words are just squiggles with no impact.

As well as being a trained journalist and professional copywriter, I have a degree in psychology. Not just social psychology (how people tick), but also cognitive psychology (how the brain processes words and symbols on paper and on screen).

One of the things I learned about is the Stroop effect — an experiment that shows, once you know how to read, you can’t NOT read. Subjects are shown a list of colour names written in a different colour from the one they describe (so blue might be in red, green might be in yellow etc.) The task is to read the colour NOT the word, and most people find it surprisingly difficult. If you’d like to test yourself, just Google ‘Stroop effect’ and you’ll find plenty of examples.

What this means for your marketing communications

Because people just can’t help reading, the main points of any sales message should be written in bigger type, so they can’t be missed. On posters, use bold headlines that tease people to read on. On websites, use main headings and sub-headings that make sense for skim-readers. On exhibition displays, use signage that tells the whole story at-a-glance.

In line with my fascination with psychology, I also qualified as an NLP Practitioner. NLP = Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Neuro as in neurons as in brain. Linguistic as in language. And Programming as in programming a computer.

I didn’t study NLP in order to become a coach, as many do, but more to understand the power of language to influence behaviour. One book I found particularly interesting was Words That Change Minds by Shelle Rose Charvet. I’m excited that she’s flying over from Canada to speak at an event I’m attending later this year.

Her book covers NLP meta-programs. For example, some people have a ‘towards’ motivation strategy and like to move towards a goal, while others have an ‘away’ motivation strategy and prefer to move away from a problem.

What this means for your marketing communications

If you sell insurance, your customers probably have an ‘away’ strategy. That’s why insurance adverts tend to focus on the problems e.g. What would do you if your house burned down / your computer crashed / your car got stolen. People with a ‘towards’ strategy tend not to buy insurance, because they don’t think anything bad will ever happen to them.

I had a client with a strong ‘towards’ strategy. He insisted that headlines had to be written about ‘improving the bottom-line’. I always made sure I also included something about ‘making savings’, to attract the percentage of his customers that had an ‘away’ strategy.

This fascination with psychology means my copywriting has a sound rationale behind it, and the words I write are more likely to achieve the results you want.

I originally wrote this article for Fresh Business Thinking

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