Persuasion is a powerful word for anyone in the marketing space.
The ultimate goal of your marketing, after all, is to persuade people to buy from you.
But how do you persuade people when everyone seems to sell them something? What tools do you have at your disposal to make your writing more persuasive?
Today, I want to answer all these questions for you by first showing you the persuasion strategy a Nobel-winning laurate developed that will transform the way you write your copy.
Then, I want to share my favorite 10 persuasive techniques that will 10x your copy fast.
Let’s get started.
Persuasive Techniques List
- Persuasion Technique #1: Always Tell a Story
- Persuasion Technique #2: Make Your Offers Exclusive
- Persuasion Technique #3: Use Authoritative Expressions
- Persuasion Technique #4: Arouse People for Fun and Profit
- Persuasion Technique #5: Prime Ideas
- Persuasion Technique #6: Anchor Ideas
- Persuasion Technique #7: Use the Zeigarnik Effect
- Persuasion Technique #8: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
- Persuasion Technique #9: Keep It Simple
- Persuasion Technique #10: Swear Strategically
How to Be Persuasive: A Psychological Explanation
If I asked you whether you are a rational or an irrational person, what would you say? Most likely, you’d pick the former.
Sure, you can get emotional every so often, but most likely, you are in charge of your emotions, thoughts, and actions.
Other people are dumb and irrational, but you’re not. You’re different.
In reality, all humans fall for the same irrational behaviors and thinking patterns. We consistently make cognitive mistakes that go against our self-interest, despite our deepest efforts not to make them.
Consider smoking: every smoker knows he should stop doing it, but they can’t stop. Most smokers want to quit, but their addictions are simply too strong. It’s not that they can’t stop; it’s that they won’t.
The same can be said of highly indebted people; they know their cards are maxed out, yet they keep buying shit they don’t need.
Before the 1970s, economists used to think people were rational. Every decision people took was in favor of maximizing their utility — whether that was comfort, health, money, or anything else. Leave people be people, and they’ll do fine. If only it was so easy.
From the 70s onwards, some fringe economists started to question the normative view of human behavior in favor of a more descriptive one; a theory that could explain why, for example, why people who win three bets in a row at the casino think they have a higher likelihood of keeping their winning streak, despite having no probabilistic (i.e., rational) reason to believe so. “They’re idiots,” you’d say, but it’s more than that. It’s that they’re humans; they can be irrational when given the chance.
According to a pair of Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman — the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences — and his partner Amos Tversky, humans don’t choose between two or more options based on the final outcomes, but on the probability of their wins and loses.
I won’t dwell on the details of their “prospect theory,” as explained in their seminal paper of the same name, but on another part of their extensive theoretical bibliography, one that focuses on the way humans think.
According to Kahneman, who wrote the best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow based on his extensive research with Tversky, humans think through a pair systems:
- The “Automatic System”
- The “Reflective System”
In Kahneman’s words:
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
While both systems work in tandem, more often than not, system 1 takes over the system 2, without us realizing it, making us do things we often can’t explain.
When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book.
I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.
While you may think your prospects take your marketing as a given — i.e., your products have a specific benefit; they want that benefit; thus they buy from you — they often become influenced by the automatic system, which makes a decision before they even realize it.
The main takeaway from Kahneman’s theory, and the one on which this entire article is based upon is that as a marketer, your goal is to work with your prospect’s system 1. This system is what influences the rationale of your prospects, whether they’re aware of it or not.
If you ever made a purchase where everything “felt” right — a situation in which you didn’t need to be sold anything, you just wanted to buy that product — then your system 1 was influencing your system 2, thus overriding any second thought you may have had against that purchase.
System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.
When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually.
What I’m covering is just a very small piece of Kahneman and Tversky’s theories; there’s a whole lot more to write about how both systems work and how biases influence people’s thinking.
For now, I want you to remember this:
The entire list of persuasive techniques featured in this article will be focused on leveraging your prospect’s system 1. If you use these persuasive techniques in your writing or advertising, you’ll be persuasive.
Let’s now take a quick look at a simple persuasion strategy you can use and adapt within your marketing campaigns.
A Simple Persuasion Strategy
In order to use the persuasion strategies laid below, you want to have a strategy that helps you tie all of them together in a logical fashion.
To this extent, I’ll use Roger Dooley’s Persuasion Slide, which is structured in the following way:
Here’s how this slide works:
- You start by giving a “nudge” to your visitors by having them pay attention to an ad, an offer, or something of value.
- Then, you leverage the target’s internal motivation — the gravity; and
- You add additional motivation — your angle
- Both things allow you to overcome resistance — friction — and get to your ultimate goal, which can be a purchase, a subscription, or anything else.
The 10 persuasion writing techniques you’ll see below will touch in any of the four elements of the persuasion slide. Whenever you pick one of the techniques, you’ll be affecting of these four elements.
Whatever technique you pick, make sure to remember the ultimate goal: having your visitor continue down the slide. And yes, the following list of persuasive writing techniques will work with your prospect’s system 1. I didn’t forget about that. 😉
Without further ado, let’s get into the 10 persuasion techniques.
What Is A “Persuasion Technique?”
A persuasion technique is a method of writing that leverages human biases with the goal of making a message more attractive in the eye of the recipient.
Persuasion Technique #1: Always Tell a Story
Humans love stories. They are ingrained in our blood.
Back in the hunter-gatherer times, we used to transmit information through stories, whether they were legends, myths, or rumors; thus we became wired to them.
Stories helped increase cooperation within tribes, as recently shown by researchers of the University College London, which in turn helped the dissemination of information, like new tools and technologies developed. This also allowed us to become much more technologically advanced and better organized than any other species.
Besides the anthropological explanation, there’s even a physiological reason why we love stories, one that makes us crave for them.
Whenever we hear a story, we secrete a hormone called oxytocin, which is synthesized in the hypothalamus and helps humans bond with each other. As Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., the man who first found the way this little peptide works, explains:
I now consider oxytocin the neurologic substrate for the Golden Rule: If you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.
When your brain secretes oxytocin, you can feel empathy, kindness, and carry a cooperative attitude towards others. If you want to persuade people, you must engrain them into your messaging. Instead of telling your audience the benefits of your offer, you tell a story that shows those benefits. Stories are the packaging on which you transmit your ideas.
A similar analogy is the one used by Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which compares stories to a Trojan Horse:
[…] just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell. […] We need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.
In the simplest terms, a story has three parts:
- The introduction: In this part, you give a background on the character’s life, beliefs, ideas, and original situation
- The climax: In here, you add a challenge to your character(s), whether that’s a life-changing situation, a belief shift, or whatever it may be that causes the original situation to change
- The conclusion: Finally, you close the loop, telling how the character(s) faced the challenge, how they changed their life, beliefs, or ideas, and the new situation they are in
There are many storytelling (or narrative) theories, many of which are incredibly complex. All of them have in common the same 3-part pattern, regardless of the way they structure them.
Your stories don’t need to be long or complex. Each of these three elements can be used in a sentence, paragraph, or entire article.
Let’s take the following example:
I used to be a marketer, but it never felt quite right, so I decided to become a writer, and after a lot of practice, I started getting paid for my writing.
The underscored words are the introduction, the italics are the climax, and the bolded ones are the conclusion. Is this a good story? Nope. Is it one? Indeed it is.
If you haven’t noticed, that story is a synthesized version of my article on becoming a freelance writer. I could have easily explained that in a paragraph as well, but whatever the length, the story stays the same:
- I was a marketer
- I decided I was going to be a writer
- I worked my ass off and I became one
Let’s take a look at how you can start embedding stories (your trojan horses) into your company.
Exercise #1: Create Your Story
Start by opening your favorite note-taking app — Evernote, Google Docs, a note pad — and answer the following questions:
- Why did you start your business?
- What do you offer?
- Who do you serve?
- Why do you serve them?
- What challenges does your audience often face?
- How do you help your audience overcome these challenges?
- What results have you brought to other people? How did your offer help them?
In the first question, you state your own purpose. You want to make money like any other business owner (capitalism, baby!) but there’s something more that pushed to start your business. Even if it’s to help people like you before you became an online marketing expert, your purpose will help create empathy with your audience.
The second and their questions simply define your solution — your expertise and skills — and your target audience.
The fourth question is similar to the first one, but geared towards your audience. Again, this answer may simply be that you like working with that specific vertical/niche, or that you worked in that given vertical/niche for a long time, so you “get” them.
The fifth and sixth question help you build the story around your customers. It then takes it to the final destination, the conclusion, the final happy ending.
The final seventh question helps you prove your story. It’s what makes it real, concise, and palpable.
You can use these answers in a basic fill-in-the-blanks story-creation structure like the following one:
As a [TARGET AUDIENCE = THIRD ANSWER], you often face [CHALLENGE = FIFTH ANSWER]. We know because [PURPOSE = FOURTH ANSWER].
When we founded [YOUR COMPANY], we [STORY = FIRST ANSWER]. With our services, [YOUR OFFER = SECOND ANSWER], we allow you to [YOUR SOLUTION = SIXTH ANSWER], just like we helped [OTHERS = SEVENTH ANSWER].
This is a very basic and simple storyline. You can adapt it to your own taste. The point is to use the answers to all of the seven questions from above to start reaping the persuading benefits of stories.Click To Tweet, you often face [CHALLENGE]. We know because [PURPOSE]. When we founded [YOUR COMPANY], we [STORY]. With [YOUR OFFER], we allow you to [SOLUTION], just like we helped [OTHERS].” quote=”A basic fill-in-the-blanks story-creation structure: As a [TARGET AUDIENCE], you often face [CHALLENGE]. We know because [PURPOSE]. When we founded [YOUR COMPANY], we [STORY]. With [YOUR OFFER], we allow you to [SOLUTION], just like we helped [OTHERS].”]
Let’s say you run an online marketing agency. You offer online marketing plans for small-sized companies who want to get more traffic.
Here’s how you would have positioned your main offer before you add a story into it:
Do you want more traffic? We at Acme Inc. offer affordable online marketing services for small business owners like you. Call us today!
Cheesy and overused, right? Every business owner does the same, and it breaks my heart when I see that. “If only they knew how to create stories,” I think to myself.
Here’s how you can transmit the same message (traffic generation for SMBs) with a story:
You are a proud business owner who worked hard to start your company. You’ve paid your dues for years, but you see it’s getting hard to get more people walk through your door. There’s too much competition out there.
When we started Acme Inc., we saw that ourselves. We were overworked and underpriced, and we knew there was another way.
But then, we started to attract thousands of visitors to our site. Now we get over 1,000 free leads a month. We have to reject 95% of them, simply because there’s too much work for us to handle.
Since we know how much you need to start generating traffic and grow your business, we offer traffic generation services to small business owners like yourself who want to focus on running the business and let others manage the traffic.
This is exactly what we’ve done for SuperCompany Inc, which drove 200% more traffic into their site in less than 3 months.
Do you want to get more traffic? Call us now.
Once again, the point isn’t the length or the beauty of this story (it ain’t my best, I’ll tell you that), but to add the story elements in place and play with them until you develop a narrative around your business story.
You can use a similar story structure with anything you do. With this mindset, you can start adding stories anywhere, anytime you want and start conquering people’s mind, just like Achilles in Troy.
Persuasion Technique #2: Make Your Offers Exclusive
How many times have you heard something like this?
“It’s an exclusive event for special guests; you can’t come.”
“It’s a special product that only a few selected clients can purchase.”
“It’s a unique product; only 50 of these have been manufactured.”
Exclusivity plays a key role in the way we perceive people, objects, or ideas. It makes them special, different, or, let’s face it, better.
When something it’s exclusive, it has a higher perceived value, its status is higher, and it’s better than the rest.
What makes something exclusive? Scarcity.
When something is scarce, people want it more. It’s the “2+2” of marketing; anyone knows that. Any economics 101 class will show you that the higher the demand of any given product and the lower its offer (i.e., the scarcer a given object is), the higher the price (or value).
As Jonah Berger, who I quoted in the previous technique, says in his book (emphasis mine):
Scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making people feel like insiders. If people get something not everyone else has, it makes them feel special, unique, high status. And because of that they’ll not only like a product or service more, but tell others about it. Why? Because telling others makes them look good.
If your offers are exclusive, they will be desired and valued higher. But you can’t just put an “Exclusive” sticker into your products and make them exclusive.
Exclusivity is a matter of perception. If you make your offer look exclusive, it soon will be. Take a look at how the people from Convince and Convert, a top marketing agency, position their services. They focus on differentiating from other agencies, explain their USP, and show proof of the clients with whom they work.
Here’s where marketers start to gain a bad rep of liars and manipulators. To some extent, it is true that marketers often like about the exclusivity of an offer. As always, this depends on the ethics of the marketer at hand. Some will be honest, some not.
What’s truly important is that you inject exclusivity into your offers.
According to Professor Berger, exclusivity has another benefit: the mere act of talking about exclusive things makes them high-authority. This status can be traded as a “social currency” (emphasis mine):
Just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, what we talk about influences how others see us. It’s social currency. Knowing about cool things—like a blender that can tear through an iPhone—makes people seem sharp and in the know. So to get people talking we need to craft messages that help them achieve these desired impressions.
This is the same reason why rich people talk about yachting, golfing, and horse riding when few middle-class people wouldn’t even care to talk about those topics.
Yachts are expensive and exclusive, thus speaking about them makes you exclusive. I mean, why would I talk about yachts if I can’t use one? That’d be even worse than if I didn’t even talk about them; it’d make me look like a show-off.
Exercise #2: Make Your Offers Exclusive
Every unique offer has one (or a combination) of the following three elements:
- Unique: When something is unique, it’s scarce and thus exclusive. Think of a Champagne that’s from the actual Champagne region in France. There’s only one Champagne region; thus anything that comes from it is rare.
- Time-sensitive: When something won’t last for too long, it’s scarce. Think of Black Friday; it’s only once a year — it’s unique — and the discounts are huge; thus they’re exclusive.
- Belonging: When something helps you belong to a high-authority group (the top hierarchy), it makes it exclusive. Think of an American Express Centurion Card, which is only for people that spend $250,000 per year; that is, very rich and successful people.
In the simplest terms, to make your offers more exclusive, you need to decide the element that your offers leverage to become exclusive.
You can’t magically make your offers exclusive. If your offers aren’t unique, time-sensitive, or generate belonging, you can hardly add these elements to your offers and transform them into something scarce and valuable.
For example, if you manufacture thousands of a given product you sell, you can’t invent some narrative about your “special manufacturing methods,” when they’re made in a regular Chinese industrial plant. If, on the other hand, your product is made in a small artisan shop in your country of origin, you can easily use that as the “unique” aspect of your offer.
We’ve all heard marketers say “buy now, there are only 50 units available!” and then seeing that the message continues to exist for months on end. Either their marketing sucks and nobody is buying, or they’re appealing to suckers. Whatever the case, it’s unethical.
It’s much better to add these elements within your offers.
Let’s say you run a consulting business. Instead of working with anyone who comes to your door (physical or virtual), you could limit the number of clients you take per month, so the few with whom you work will get all of your attention, and thus will get better results. Your offer is consequently both unique and time-sensitive.
What’s better is that your clients pay you more but get more value as well. (And you make more money, which is kinda cool. 😅)
I previously mentioned the case of a physical product that’s manufactured in an artisan shop; a digital product works the same. If your knowledge on which you base your digital product is based from years of experience in the field, then that’s the attributes that you can use to make your offer exclusive.
Jeff Walker, the marketer behind the famous “Product Launch Formula,” found that by making your products time-sensitive, marketers can sell more. This tactic increases the exclusivity of your offer, making you wish to access it.
Finally, you can make your offers more exclusive by adding a “belonging” element to it, like adding a “mastermind” for all your clients to work together and be accountable for their results. You can also create a loyalty program which rewards people for their long-term commitments. You can also give out exclusive deals from other partners in your industry and thus make your offers even more valuable.
There’s no direct way to make your offers more exclusive once they’ve been launched. Instead, define which of the exclusivity element mentioned best fits your offers and add it to it.
Exclusivity is a status-inducing attribute. When you make your offers exclusive, they immediately become high-status.
Close to exclusivity, another way to increase the appeal of your offers and make them look more valuable is to focus on authority.
Authority plays into an anthropological trigger in people’s mind. Whenever the chief of our tribe (i.e., the person we consider the top authority in any given social group, like your company) tells you something, you listen and obey.
Remember that humans are social creatures. We live in social structures — tribes, cultures, civilizations — with hierarchies. There are people at the top whose authority is above everyone, and there are people below it whose authority isn’t as high.
To prove this point, take what’s possibly the most fucked-up psychology study ever done: the Milgram experiment.
In this experiment, a bunch of regular Americans were told to administer an electric shock every time someone on another room (who was supposedly learning something) made a mistake.
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The key finding of this sick study was that humans follow whatever orders they’re given by someone consider as an authority, regardless of the negative consequences of their actions. If an authority figure gives you an order, you follow it. Even if you’re a smart person. Even if you’re a good Christian. Even if you don’t like violence. You. Follow. Orders.
Robert Cialdini, the Ph.D. professor author of the highly-cited book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, calls this the “Authority principle.”
We rarely agonize to such a degree over the pros and cons of authority’s demands. In fact, our obedience frequently takes place in a click, whirr fashion, with little or no conscious deliberation. Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.
We’re not stupid; we’re humans — and humans like authority. Deal with it, bro. 🤷♂️
Authority doesn’t come just in imperative orders; if that was the case, you could easily make a sale by telling your visitors to buy your products. Rather, authority can also be shown through the use of subtle words. That is, through the use of authoritative expressions.
When I say you need to use “authoritative expressions,” I’m talking about a barely-perceivable set of words that show you know what you’re writing (or talking) about.
More often than not, writers and marketers alike use expressions like:
I get why you could use these expressions: you don’t want to look like a tool that tells people how to live their lives. Like water and oil, politeness doesn’t mix well with authority and persuasion.
Instead, you need to use expressions like:
- You must
- You have to
- You need to
- I believe
- I think
(See what I just did there? 😏)
The use of authoritative expressions will help you amplify your influence over them. Psychologists have called this effect the “Amplification Hypothesis.”
In the simplest terms, this means that by expressing an idea with certainty and authority, you make it easier for people to believe it and spread it to others.
If you’re a health expert, writing “You have to eat a healthy diet” instead of “You may want to eat a healthier diet” doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you look like an expert.
(It also makes you a responsible person — one that takes care of her readers. Your readers will thank you and respect you for that.)
Persuasion renders a big part of its power from authority; using high-certainty expressions whenever you convey an idea or thought will help you leverage it for maximum effect.
Persuasion Technique #4: Arouse People for Fun and Profit
Arousal is often thought of as a sexual concept. Rest assured this is not the case. 😅
Arousal is actually an emotional state in which you feel energized and alive. According to a paper developed by Margaret B. Bradley and Peter J. Lang, both researchers from the University of Florida, arousal forms part of a three-dimensional model called the “Valence-Arousal-Dominance” model of emotion classification.
In this model, arousal represents the intensity on which you feel a given emotion: something that excites you is high-arousal; something that’s relaxing is low-arousal. Regardless of whether it’s a positive or a negative emotion (the “valence” part of the model), arousal measure the level on which you feel any given emotion.
When you write copy, you want to increase your reader’s arousal as much as possible. You want your readers to react to your content with intensity. The more you arouse people, they more likely you will move them into following you. As Jonah Berger says (emphasis mine):
We need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.
Writers often create content with a bland intent; they don’t want to “bother” they readers, so they never make a strong opinion about something they believe in. Psychology shows that’s wrong. Your content must pike the reader’s arousal; make them happy, angry, hopeful, worried, committed, anxious, or whatever strong feeling that makes people feel something in their stomach.
A recent study done by Jacopo Staiano of Sorbonne University and Marco Guerini of Trento Rise found that the higher the arousal — like the angrier or happier the reader became — the more likely it’d become viral.
UpWorthy, the massively popular (news?) site, often uses high-arousal elements to their viral stories. In their famous How To Make That One Thing Go Viral slide, where they explain the way they construct their viral stories, they show the following quadrant:
Take a look at Upworthy, and you will see they always play with your arousal:
The same can be said for most popular media sites, even in the business industry:
What makes you either angry or happy can become viral. While they focus on both negative and positive traits, their approach that lays underneath the surface is one where high-intensity emotions prevail.
This idea of high-arousal leads to action was shown to be true by yet another study done by the Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, who found that positive content tends to correlate more with virality. And the former also says in his book that arousal is “one reason funny things get shared.”
The best proof of the power of arousal is the recent Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads. People went bananas with these ads, many people going as far as burning their Nike’s shoes in reaction to these ads. Did Nike get a negative backlash in their revenues or stock price? Not at all. Actually, the ad helped Nike increase their market value by 9%.
It’s all thanks to the arousal, baby. 😎
Exercise #3: Increase Your Reader’s Arousal
When it comes to your content, you want to leverage the highest-arousal emotions possible. If the topic is positive (like a tutorial to learn a new skill), then you can use elements like:
- Shocking statistics
- Myth busting
- Unique images
- Incredible results
- Humorous bits
One of my favorite training blogs, Muscle for Life, often uses shocking stats to surprise you, like in the example below:
I’ve also used arousal to increase the appeal of my articles, particularly at their intro. Look at this intro I wrote for this blog post from Foundr:
While I won’t say this article will see you jumping from your chair, I tried to add a bit of shock to a common myth around lead generation.
One of the best bloggers I’ve seen who constantly plays with high-arousal emotions is Ash Ambirge from The Middle Finger Project (even that name is high arousal).
Throughout her site, her copy, as well as her content, plays with your emotions (positive so far as I’ve seen), her about page being the best example of this technique. She uses a mix of humor and surprising results to tie the reader into a high-arousal journey of emotions.
I often don’t take this extreme road (maybe because my life hasn’t been as tragic as Ash’s), but I do add a combination of the five elements described slightly above. For example, throughout this post, I’ve shared a number of images from the studies I mentioned.
In some other cases, I add bits of humor (I know, I’m not thaaat funny, but who cares?). All with the intention of “waking your emotions up,” even if it’s just a tiny bit.
Whenever you’re in doubt, you want to take each emotion you trigger in your reader into a high-arousal state. That means:
- You don’t want to trigger happiness; you want awe
- You don’t want to trigger sadness; you want anger
- You don’t want to trigger curiosity; you want shock
Persuasion Technique #5: Prime Ideas
The movie Inception is one of the most mind-blowing movies of this decade and one of my favorites as well. If you’ve seen it, you got so hooked after the last shot, where you’re wondering
what the fuck happens after the movie ends (a good example of high-arousal storytelling).
Soon after that movie came out, everyone started to refer to the idea of “Inception” to the action of putting an idea in someone’s mind without them realizing it.
Imagine if you had that power: you’d be able to persuade people without having to pull any strings or push any buttons; they would make the decision you want them to make on their own, even though you’re the one who made them make that decision in the first place.
That’d be amazing, but a bit scary, wouldn’t it? 😱
Psychologists have discovered humans have gaps in their thought processes that make them vulnerable to such “Inception-like” influences.
It doesn’t involve hypnosis, pressure, or drugs. The name psychologists have given to the technique in which you “incept” people is priming.
Here’s how priming works:
You have an infinite amount of concepts and ideas swirling around your subconscious, the underwater sea that goes deep within your conscious mind.
Whenever you expose one of these ideas from the deep subconscious, people take that idea as more important, thus getting influenced by it.
Let’s say I wanted to sell you a Lexus IS. You like the car, but you just want a faster car, one that’s more sports-like. Any salesman, in this case, would try to convince you with facts, highlighting all the great features this car has.
But I’m no salesman; I understand psychology, and I know how to use priming to influence your brain to like this care before I even try to convince you to do so.
Before I even say anything about its features, I conspicuously say: “the Lexus IS is like the Usain Bolt of cars.”
A simple remark. Lexus and Usain Bolt have nothing to do with one another, yet somehow, deep into your brain, I get to open a little door that touches your subconscious. All of a sudden, the waters start to move. Your head starts to magically make sense of the things I told you about the car.
All of a sudden, the car seems fast. You like it a lot more. You actually want to buy it.
How did I get to do that? I didn’t push you into believing that.
What happened is that I primed you. I used a previous idea you had in your mind (Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever) and use it to transfer some of its properties into another one (the Lexus IS).
Of course, this is an oversimplification of the concept, and some will say this isn’t representative of how the process actually works. But the idea is the same:
I use certain words that trigger an idea in your mind, and then you connect those ideas with a new one, so then the former’s properties are transferred onto the latter.
Before you know it, you’ve been primed.
Robert Cialdini, the OG who wrote Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, shares an insightful study in this video:
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One online furniture store tested images of fluffy clouds vs. cold hard cash on its home page.
Those who saw the background depiction of clouds searched the site for more comfortable furniture. Those who went to the site that had money in the background became cost-conscious and preferred to purchase less expensive furniture.
Just by looking at clouds you become more comfort-seeking; looking at money makes you cost-saving. Isn’t that weird? 😃
Exercise #4: Prime Your Readers
To prime your readers, you simply need to follow four simple steps:
- Define a few attributes of your offer
- Come up with a few ideas that share the same attributes as your offer and that your reader will surely know
- Mention that new idea from the previous step
- Then, mention your offer
In this funny ad, Virgin tries to associate increasing their customer’s speeds with Usain Bolt, who’s the fastest man in the world (and of all time).
Another way to prime people is making the reader think about the result she’s trying to get before giving away your offer. Here’s a good example from 30×500, a premium course ran by Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman:
In this case, they prime you to think about all the awesome benefits of knowing the exact product your audience wants. With these ideas in mind, it’s much easier to make a sell, since you already know what you want to get from it.
Priming is simple, and that’s why it works so well. Within its intrinsic basic nature it hides a highly powerful message; one that makes you get inside your reader’s mind without them knowing it.
Persuasion Technique #6: Anchor Ideas
Has anyone ever told you that it’s not important what you say, but how you say it?
Well, they were wrong.
What you say doesn’t matter as much as when you say it.
The reason for the way in which you structure your ideas matter much more than you’d imagine because humans aren’t that good at processing information.
Whenever someone tells us two pieces of information, we tend to put more weight on one than on the other one.
This is called the “anchoring effect,” and ever since it was discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, it changed the way people — especially those at sales and marketing departments — present information.
The anchor effect is a “cognitive bias” (or a “mental fuckup,” as I like to call it) which happens when “people consider a particular value for an unknown quantity before estimating that quantity.”
That means, when you don’t know the price of something, you’re easily influenced by the first price you’re given. Then, you carry that price throughout your purchase decision — which works like an anchor — regardless of whether that anchored price is realistic or useful.
Alternatively, if you already have an idea of how much something costs — because you already have researched or bought a similar product in the past — that can also work as an anchor.
Since people are biased to accept the first piece of information they see as the basis for judging and making decisions on other information, some SaaS marketers often put the price of the most expensive plan in the leftmost of their pricing tables. By looking at the priciest plan of all, the ones they really want you to buy (the middle ones) look much better in contrast.
In some other cases, they highlight the main plan they want you to buy. While it doesn’t prime you in the same way as in the example from above, it does make you put all your attention into it:
Copywriters also use the anchoring effect when they share the “real value” of all the features they give away. I once read that copywriters like to use a price that ten times the real price, so when you consider all the separate offers, they seem much cheaper than they really are.
Whatever the case, check any copywriter’s sales page and you will see this effect in action. Russell Brunson, being an expert copywriter, uses this trick in Clickfunnels’ landing page, adding all the “paid” features that he “gives away” by a tenth of the total price you pay.
The anchor effect shows us that we are easily influenced by uncertainty, randomness, and our own mental handicaps to value something for its true price — the price of the market.
Does Moving Your Head Influence Your Price Perception?
Let me ask you a weird question:
If I told you a dozen apples were $5, and then you whether shaking your head from side to side — like you were saying no — influenced
Nick Epley and Tom Gilovich found evidence that you can change the price perception, and thus change your anchor when you shake your head while hearing the anchor. That is, if you physically reject the price as you hear it, the price given will not be anchored as well.
People adjust less (stay closer to the anchor) when their mental resources are depleted, either because their memory is loaded with digits or because they are slightly drunk. Insufficient adjustment is a failure of a weak or lazy System 2.
Persuasion Technique #7: Use the Zeigarnik Effect
People love movie trailers. Or sequels.
Why is it so?
Because we can’t resist what’s unfinished.
When someone gives us a hint of something, we desperately want to close that “gap.”
Psychologists, as it always happens, have a term for that: the Zeigarnik Effect.
The Zeigarnik Effect was discovered by a University of Berlin student called Bluma Zeigarnik, whose professor, Kurt Lewin, had noted the waiters in a cafe seemed to remember incomplete tabs more efficiently than those that had been paid for and were complete. Why did that happen?
Ms. Zeigarnik and her professor put the hypothesis into a test, in what would turn out to be a groundbreaking experiment for future marketers.
Ms. Zeigarnik asked 43 participants to complete a series of separate tasks, such as solving a puzzle or assembling a flat-pack box. In around half of the assignments, the experiment supervisor interrupted the participants, while in the other half the participants completed their tasks uninterrupted.
After the experiment, Zeigarnik interviewed each participant. The results revealed that participants were able to recall details of interrupted tasks around 90% better than those that were uninterrupted.
She had confirmed that people can remember unfinished ideas very well, but not so much once they’re closed. When a task, idea, or story is unfinished, it “sticks” in your memory like glue because your brain believes it will be finished soon, and thus will be of good use.
Soon after the task is done, the idea is relieved, or the story finished, that information is no longer useful, so your brain “deletes” it.
What you need to know is that by creating curiosity gaps, you can keep the reader’s attention for much longer. Since keeping someone’s attention in the online world is so hard, you must use the Zeigarnik effect.
I love using the Zeigarnik effect whenever I start a new article, story, or section of an article (the H2 and H3 headers for the nerds out there). If you check my intros, they often start right with a punch, focusing on what you will learn from this piece.
Take a look at how I use the Zeigarnik effect in this piece on ecommerce growth hacking:
Then, I use the same effect when I explain one of these growth hacks:
I love using this persuasive writing technique as much as possible (within the confinements of reason and honesty) because it’s a quick and easy way to make your content much more intriguing.
All top writers use this technique, like Bill Widmer does in this Sumo article:
The Zeigarnik effect isn’t a clean sheet to overextend your ideas and build too much anticipation for no reason. If you have ever seen a bad marketer at work, you know how bad it feels to see someone who’s constantly promising something that’s never delivered. It usually goes like this:
This “secret” technique the gurus don’t want you to learn will transform you into a superstar, even if you have no experience, no money, or no connections.
And they keep going on and on talking about that “secret,” until you reach the end of the page and you see that in order to discover that “secret,” you need to pay $59.99 (just for TODAY!) to see it.
The point of this persuasive technique is to avoid giving away your chips right away, and instead convey the value of your ideas before you reveal them.
There are many ways you can structure this effect within your content, but in general, they all work the same way, following a simple pain-agitation-solution framework (the P.A.S. framework I showed you in my writing techniques piece).
The pain and the agitation build the anticipation, while the solution releases the tension.
Persuasion Technique #8: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Have you ever heard that when you repeat something three times it “sticks” more in your brain? Have you? Really, have you?
OK, with all due seriousness, if you haven’t, the “myth” states that when you repeat an idea multiple times, you remember it better.
Weird as it may seem, this effect truly exists.
Two experiments from Stefan Schulz-Hardt and colleagues demonstrated that repeating specific information during a discussion was enough to change someone’s mind.
The research team noticed that when people discuss, they tend to repeat ideas, even if they lack substantial proof to back them up. The reason why this happens, the team thought, was due to the “mere exposure effect,” the phenomenon that explains how repeating information makes it easier for people to remember it.
On the other hand, the team thought that people do that because they use it as a social cue — an implicit way of letting you know that what they say is true.
To check their hypothesis, the researchers took 100 college students to their lab and partnered them with a trained researcher. Their job was to take two job applicants and discuss who was better qualified for the position.
At first, the participants completed a short questionnaire comparing the two job candidates. Then, each pair of students and researchers were seated together so they could discuss each applicant personally.
Throughout the discussion, the researcher either selectively repeated four pieces of information supporting the student’s choice, or four pieces of information supporting the other candidate. After they had finished their conversation, the students completed another survey asking which of the job candidates they would hire.
The research showed that nearly 70% of the students changed their initial pick if their partner repeated information supporting the other candidate. On the other hand, only 2% of the students changed their mind when their partner repeated information that supported the job applicant they favored.
That means, if the researcher supported the student’s decision, they’d keep it. If they repeated information against their decision, they’d change it.
Talk about convictions, amirite? 🤦♂️
What this study shows is that when you repeat a concept, you’ll increase the chances of making people understand you. It’s not that people are dumb and need you to tell them an idea many times so they get it, rather it is that ideas are better understood that way.
You can repeat a single word, a phrase, a sentence, or an idea. More often than not, I like aiming for the phrase or idea, since they are catchier and seem less “heavy” for the reader. For example, copywriter genius Joanna Wiebe shows the power of repetition in this email she sent a while back:
As you can see, she repeats the number “100” but also the phrase “100 days.” Her point is to sell the idea of writing 100 headlines in 100 days. Simple and powerful.
Famous orators have used the repetition technique to make a point, build a pattern (like rappers do), and create a sense of depth to their meaning. Take a look at the closure of Martin Luther King Jr.s’ famous “I Have a Dream” speech:
So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that. Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi, from every mountainside. Let freedom ring . . .
That’s the power of repetition.
You don’t need to repeat the same phrase over, and over, and over again — like in that sentence. Instead, aim to repeat an idea throughout your content.
Persuasion Technique #9: Keep It Simple
So far, I’ve shared thirteen different persuasion techniques you can use to improve your marketing copy.
After reading so much, you could think that there’s a lot you’ve got to do to persuade people:
- You have to prime and anchor them
- You have to tell stories
- You have to arouse them
- And so on
If you’re thinking about using all of these techniques right away, let me be the first one to tell you it’s not necessary to do so. Relax. Breathe.
In persuasion, simplicity matters.
Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the bestselling book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, explain this idea clearly:
To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.
That means, your message must be simple enough for people to understand.
When you think “Just do it,” you think of Nike, sports, and overcoming challenges. That’s a powerful message. Most importantly, its persuasive message lies in its simplicity.
Nike didn’t have to create a hundred ads explaining the technical details of their shoes, or why exercising is good for you, or how awesome it’s to train. They took a whole idea — a message — and strip it down to its core.
Your persuasive messages must also be simple, short, and concise. That’s way harder said than done, but taking the time will pay its dividends in the future.
The Heath brothers continue explaining their message by saying:
It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of “dumbing down” or “sound bites.” You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by “simple” is finding the core of the idea.
“Finding the core” means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.
To this idea, Al Ries and Jack Trout, authors of Positioning: A Battle for Your Mind, agree:
The best approach to take in our overcommunicated society is the oversimplified message.
In communication, as in architecture, less is more. You have to sharpen your message to cut into the mind. You have to jettison the ambiguities, simplify the message, and then simplify it some more if you want to make a long-lasting impression.
You look for the solution to your problem not inside the product, not even inside your own mind.
You look for the solution to your problem inside the prospect’s mind.
I could go on and on explaining how to find the core by doing brainstorming, a lot of thinking, and some creative “outside-the-box” thinking. But that’d be too complicated and too rational. To make honor of this, I prefer a much simpler method, one I got from Simon Sinek.
If you’ve ever read my content, you will notice one of the books that has influenced the most to me has been Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, by Simon Sinek. In this book, Sinek explains that beneath the things we do, there’s a deep “why” — a purpose — that holds the reins of your actions.
The author explains there’s a “Golden Circle,” in which at the center is our why (the reason why we do things), a how (the way we do them), and a what (the actual things we do).
Find your why, and your actions will have a much clearer intent.
On a similar vein, if you find the “why” of your message, you will find the core message.
In the case of Nike, the main problem people face when starting a new sport is the lack of courage, energy, or experience. They could have said “we sell sports shoes” and leave it at that, but they knew better.
No one cares about Nike’s shoes; people care about having a reason to use them.
What did Nike say? Forget the excuses, the bullshit, the lack of time, energy, or idea — just do it.
What’s the simplest way to explain your company, value proposition, and offers? That’s your core message.
If you’re still struggling, here’s a simple way you can go find your core message:
- Explain your business value proposition, mission, and vision in a few sentences or paragraphs
- Trim them down to a few main ideas that best represent your company
- Trim them down to one sentence
- Trim it down to a few words
There’s no reason why your message has to be covered by a layer of copywriting techniques, explanations, and ideas. Strip it down to its core, and you will make it much more persuasive than with any other technique.
Persuasion Technique #10: Swear Strategically
I left this technique for the end because it’s the most strange and counterintuitive of all.
Swearing is often considered as something bad and unprofessional. You risk annoying people. That’s fine for when you have a conversation, but it may not be the best tactic when you want to persuade people.
Everyone wants to look professional all the time. You say the right things, and you look the part. When you want to make a sale, however, you don’t want to look like a professional sales rep who’s trying to raise your commissions, you want to help the buyer.
Swearing will break the pristine image of the salesman and will help you become more human, more real, and more honest. You’re just like the buyer, a normal person who sometimes swears.
The key to swearing, however, it’s to use it strategically.
A study done by Cory R. Scherer and Brad J. Sagarin from Northern Illinois University took 88 participants and grouped them in three sets. Each set of people saw one of three different speeches, one of which had a small swear in between. The video said:
“…lowering of tuition is not only a great idea, but damn it, also the most reasonable one for all parties involved.”
The speech only said “damn it,” a mild swear by most people’s means, but a swear nonetheless.
In the world of online marketing, we are used of hearing a lot of fantastic, well-sounding stories of marketers who make millions with a simple “secret” that requires no experience, no money, and no pants. Marketers love to craft narratives that are too good to be true.
A few smart online marketers know this too well. Swearing is thus their magic potion that helps break through the image of the “perfect (snake oil) marketer” and build trust fast.
One of the best ones at this is one of my favorite online marketing/entrepreneurship people: Amy Hoy. She often (if not always) swears strategically in her content, making her already great pieces much more relatable.
This piece she recently published shows the story behind her “Just Fucking Ship” philosophy. Not only her story is excellent (it made me want to sign up for her email list even though I’m already a part of it 😅), but the swearing touches a nerve on me.
I think she only swears twice, in two separate parts, but when she does it, it’s really powerful.
She even swears pretty heavily in her post titles, which makes them very funny and interesting to read.
Jorden Roper, from Creative Revolt, also uses strategic swearing, which probably helped her position in the creative space quickly.
She doesn’t swear all the time, mind you. In a given article she probably swears 2-3 times, maybe up to 5, so in a 2,000-word piece, it’s not that much. But whenever she does, it makes her message much more powerful.
While some will say such use of the English language is inappropriate and disrespectful, that’s what it makes it so persuasive. People like taboos. People act naughty, even though they know they shouldn’t or that it’s wrong. So when you swear, you’re writing like you really are; like a regular human being. You don’t act like a superior man who looks down to his audience; you are one of them.
While these two examples may be a bit too extreme for some, I’d consider adding some strong swearing every so often, maybe once per article at max. In the studies mentioned above, the researchers found that the speech that influenced the participants the most was the one with the mild swear. So you may
The researchers concluded that:
Swearing at the beginning and at the end of the speech led to more positive attitudes about the topic and greater perceptions of speaker intensity. These results provide the first demonstration of the persuasive power of obscenity, and they suggest that judiciously used obscenity can increase persuasion, at least within the context of a pro-attitudinal speech.
The swearing seemed to have increased the intensity of the message.
Remember: swearing doesn’t make you a bad marketer — it makes you a more real, honest, human marketer. Just fucking swear. 😅
How to Make Your Writing More Persuasive
So here you have it, the 10 persuasive techniques that will boost your marketing copy.
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