Mastering Emotion in Marketing Copy
Good books nourish the brain. Really good books reverberate for weeks or months after reading them. I know I’ve read an impactful book when I repeatedly connect the book’s ideas to my own world.
The very best books trigger entirely new thoughts. The connection of those books and other inputs leads to fresh insights. I get excited when these things come together in ways that the authors didn’t intend.
This post is a case in point. Three books that are fresh enough to still be reverberating in my mind brought an insight that feels important. The insight comes from books on three different topics: writing fiction, negotiating business deals, and parenting; but each has something to say about managing emotions.
I highly recommend Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss, the former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI. The negotiating techniques are practical and proven in intense situations. Yet they still apply to business and to life. More importantly, a number of the techniques that he proposes run counter to conventional wisdom on negotiating. By itself, that makes it a worthwhile read.
In any negotiation, the critical question is: what is driving the other party? In classic negotiating studies, the driving force is a rational thought process involving needs and value. Life is messy and negotiations are rarely rational. There are emotional drivers. This resonates with me since I believe emotions drive buying decisions far more than rational thinking does. I buy a fancy stereo because I want it and the sound will make me feel good, not because I’ve calculated the value of higher quality music. There’s a blend of emotion and rational thought in this process, but the emotion moves the needle farther.
In negotiations, things go poorly when there is a lot of emotion involved. Witness: every contentious divorce ever.
To take emotion out of a situation, Voss recommends a method he calls, ”labeling.” It’s the process of naming the apparent emotion. It works like this:
Other person, pounding the table: “This whole conversation is going nowhere.”
You, calmly: “It seems like you’re angry.”
Other person: ”… I’m not angry. I’m frustrated. We need to focus on a plan.”
Whether the other person agrees or disagrees with the label, they stop and think about their emotions. That’s the thing that moves them into the rational part of the brain. Brain activity shifts from the amygdala, where emotions are processed, to the neocortex, which handles logical decision making. In other words, analyzing the emotion defuses it.
The key to the technique is the phrase, “it seems like.” That gives the other person license to agree or disagree without feeling judged. Analyzing the emotion makes it a rational thought, but also makes the other person feel heard and understood, which is a good starting point for any negotiation.
Analyzing the emotion defuses it.
Similar advice popped up in another book, The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson. This is a book on child psychology, and they propose a technique to calm a child that’s freaking out. The technique can also work to take the sting out of a traumatic memory.
Instead of “labeling,” they called the technique, ”name it to tame it.” Wit this technique, the parent tries to get the child to name their emotion or the emotion they had at a point in time. Sometimes the parent prompts directly. So if a child was traumatized by a near miss with a garage door and then develops a strong aversion to garages, a good way to defuse the emotion is to walk through the bad moment with questions like, “were you afraid when the garage door was closing?” or “how did you feel at that point?”
This approach doesn’t use the “it seems like” phrase. It also adds an element of story telling where the child narrates the event including the named emotions. Despite the differences, the similarities are striking: to defuse a strong emotion in a child, get the child to name the emotion and talk about it.
To defuse a strong emotion in a child, get the child to name the emotion.
This brings me to the third book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.
I write a lot. I write emails, white papers, website copy, campaign messages, blog posts, and sometimes I even indulge in a little fiction on the side.
The fiction thing is, at best, amateur dabbling. I fix fairy tales where the heroines are at the mercy of men so my daughter can see smart female characters in control of their lives. For example, I re-wrote Snow White. In my version, Snow is loved by those that know her because she’s intelligent, creative, thoughtful, and kind. It isn’t about surface beauty. When the old lady comes with an apple, Snow only pretends to eat it. She’s not an idiot. Who knocks on someone’s door to offer an apple? She figured if the lady really meant well, she’d try to help her if Snow collapsed. So Snow outfoxed the old lady and then engineered her own escape to a neighboring kingdom. True love’s first kiss from some random guy while Snow’s unconscious, my ass.
I decided to read On Writing because of a blog post that highly recommended it for its advice on crisp communications. This is an area where I want to grow.
Unfortunately, the book was a bit of a mismatch for my goals. Half of the book is a memoir. That was interesting, but beside the point for me. A quarter of the book is on how to develop, plot, edit, market, and sell stories. This was incredibly inspiring to the part of me that would love to spend three months in a remote cabin in Alaska with just a typewriter. If ever I try my hand at fiction in earnest, I’ll re-read this part.
The remainder of the book did have great tips on writing — on the language, the word choice, the approach, and so forth. But it was oriented to writers of fiction. It focused on story-telling, scene setting, and dialog. Very little of the advice applied to my world of articles and marketing copy.
But there was a hidden insight that jumped out at me when I reflected on King’s examples of good and bad writing.
In one example, he compares two character descriptions. In the first, he flatly summarizes the character’s mental state. “Annie was depressed and possibly suicidal.” In the second version, he describes Annie as, “a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy.” The reader is left to conclude her mental state based on the description of things that could be observed.
When we read vivid details, our imaginations fill in the rest. The more we fill in, the more we empathize with it. The more we empathize, the stronger our emotional connection to the character. The second description brings a weight to Annie’s feelings where the first description just skims the surface.
What King advocates is the exact opposite of labeling. In the case of dialog, he was even more explicit. Adverbs in dialog attribution, he says, should be avoided at all costs. It is better to set a scene before the dialog so the reader fills in the emotions. For example:
“Open the damn door,” he bellowed angrily.
His face was red and his clenched fist turned his finger tips white. “Open the damn door,” he bellowed.
The goal is for the reader to observe the anger without being told about it. Being told that someone is angry is a dispassionate way to understand it.
What King advocates is the exact opposite of labeling.
So in fiction, you should avoid labeling emotions. I didn’t find any research to back this up (please comment if you know of some), but there is a lot of story writing advice on the Internet with some version of, “show don’t tell” to convey characters feelings and emotions.
If labeling is so powerful both in its use and in its absence, then it’s worth asking whether that also applies to marketing copy. If we avoid those labels that tell a user how they should feel about our product, can we be more impactful in talking about it?
Remember how I said earlier that buying a nice stereo is an emotional decision? It is. So is almost everything else. If you’re selling a stereo, how do you get the prospective buyer to feel like they’ll be floating on a cloud when they’re sitting at home listening to your overpriced and oversized box? If you trigger that feeling, you get the sale. This is what Apple does so well. Their marketing is all about invoking feelings and rarely bothers with features or other rational buying drivers.
Let’s try this using my own startup as an example. IronCore gives people and businesses control of their data. Here are two approaches to describe our solution:
Customers gain confidence and peace of mind when they keep control of their data. They are able to determine who can view their data and they are empowered to monitor who uses it, regardless of where the data lives.They can feel safe and secure knowing they can revoke access at any time.
Today, none of us know who has access to our health and financial records. We don’t know what labs and software companies are invisibly involved in our visit to the doctor. We don’t know who our credit card company shares our data with. Every new vendor, partner, and interaction propagates our data farther. In the information economy, faceless data brokers hold the power. IronCore changes that by giving us the master key that controls our data. We decide who can unlock it even when the data is out of our possession.
The first approach sounds reasonable, but it labels emotions like “safe and secure.” It’s also third person and, I think, less relatable. I suspect you didn’t identify with the “customers” that are the subject of the pitch. I also suspect that it didn’t trigger any feelings. The first approach is like crappy cold french fries — all too common and completely lacking in soft juicy insides.
The second approach won’t win any prizes, but it does attempt to relate to the reader and to evoke emotions. Did it? The approach is less succinct and focuses on individuals instead of businesses, which is a problem since businesses are our customers. But it has a more emotional impact and a relatable story.
What do you think?
About Patrick Walsh
I write and curate articles on cyber-security, privacy, encryption, law and the intersection of all of the above. I’m also the CEO of IronCore Labs, where we are changing how software is built to bring customers control of their data. To see more of this kind of content, follow our publication, The Salty Hash, on Medium. To learn more about IronCore Labs or get in touch, visit _https://_ironcorelabs.com.