There’s more than one way to write anything.
As a copywriter, one of the most useful things I learned from Shelle Rose Charvet’s book, Words that Change Minds, is the concept of ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ motivations, and the language that’s associated with them.
It seems some people are primarily motivated to move towards a goal while others are more motivated to move away from a problem.
If you’re selling investment products, you’d use ‘towards’ language.
“Imagine the yacht you could buy…“
If you’re selling insurance, it’s more ‘away from’.
“How would you cope if your car was stolen…“
Not all copywriting is sales-y. We’re not always paid to make customers take a step towards a purchase. Sometimes, we’re tasked with writing informational messages in an attempt to change behaviour.
The towards/away approach applies here too.
For example, any of these messages might appear on a supermarket self-service screen:
“Don’t forget your shopping” (‘Away from’ motivation)
This is different from:
“Remember your shopping” (‘Towards’ motivation)
And both are different from:
“Now take your shopping” (Instruction)
Which would work best for you?
Please be nice / Please don’t be nasty
There’s a difference in the way you write when you want someone to do something compared with when you want someone to stop doing something.
Compare these requests to an angry teenager:
“Don’t slam the door!“
“Close the door quietly!“
The first is away from. The second is towards. Which do you think is most likely to have the desired effect?
According to my psychology degree, it’s the latter.
Like me, maybe you’ve been noticing signs everywhere requesting people to be nice to staff. It makes me sad. It puts a nasty thought in the head of anyone who was already planning to be nice. And people who weren’t planning to be nice will probably ignore it.
Here are some examples:
“Our staff are here to help. Threatening behaviour towards them is unacceptable. London Underground always presses for the strongest penalties for anyone who assaults or intimidates our staff. Please report any anti-social behaviour to the British Transport Police Freephone hotline number below.”
“Always be respectful to our staff members. You can always expect our staff to treat you with dignity therefore we respectfully ask you that you treat our staff with respect and dignity. We do not tolerate discrimination, racism, threats, or abusive behaviour towards our staff. If you or any person in your household is abusive or violent towards any member of staff, we retain the right to stop providing care.”
Sam Rathling posted a thread about this on LinkedIn, which she’s kindly allowed me to link to.
If you were tasked with writing a message like that, would you choose a towards or away from approach?
Which do you think is more likely to work?
This is the kind of thinking that constantly exercises my copywriting brain.
Who’s to blame?
When you learn to write, you are taught about subjects, objects and verbs. The verb is the action word. The subject is the person or thing that performs the action. The object is the person or thing that the action is done to.
“The cat sat on the mat“
That phrase contains the subject, the verb, then the object. It’s active language, which is commonly used in copywriting.
“The mat was sat on by the cat“
That phrase contains the object, the verb, then the subject. It’s passive language. It’s rarely used in copywriting but often used in letters from councils, for example.
Let’s look at another phrase from a different direction:
“I was assaulted“
This is different from:
“Someone assaulted me“
The first makes the speaker the passive victim. The second blames the person who did the assault.
We should shift our language to put the action where it belongs.
Think about the direction of the words you choose, and be deliberate about it.
Or book a geeky copywriter like me to help you.
P.S. Do you say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ to your Alexa or smart speaker device? Practising that, and teaching your children to be polite, even to inanimate objects, might help.
P.P.S. Oh, and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.