How to Rescue Your Readers from
Purchase Paralysis

image of firefighters

Ever been so scared you can’t move?

It’s a common reaction to a really scary situation.

We know we’re in trouble. We know we need to move. But we can’t seem to convince ourselves, so we do nothing.

Some people make a living helping others out of tight spots like this one.

Firefighters, for example, are trained in how to get in there and persuade the immobilized person that moving is a really good idea. The firefighter quickly establishes trust, speaks firmly with authority, and gives extremely clear and specific instructions.

These persuasion strategies are the same as those used in persuasive copy. Making a decision about whether or not to buy a product is far less scary than being trapped in a burning building, but there are surprising similarities.

Your ideal customer might do what you want him to do, but not without some waffling. He hesitates before clicking the Buy button … paralyzed by fear.

So break out the tools of persuasion to help him out.

Information is not persuasive

Imagine you’re trapped in a burning building.

Now imagine I come over and simply tell you a few logical reasons you should move.

  • Fire is dangerous.
  • The human body has not evolved to withstand the ambient temperatures inside a burning building.
  • The fumes being produced are highly unhealthy.
  • The building’s structure is likely to become unsound, which creates additional dangers.

Those are all very good reasons to move. This is valuable information.

But it doesn’t help you get out of that fear-based paralysis. Information alone isn’t enough.

Persuasion isn’t about information or the facts. Very often, we already know the facts.

Persuasion is about recognizing that the prospect’s fears are valid, and then allaying those fears. It’s about saying, Yeah, I know you’re in trouble and so damned scared you don’t know what to do, but if you listen to me, I can help.

It’s about getting rid of the fear.

Why is your reader afraid?

Figuring out what scares your prospect is the copywriter’s first job.

It’s (probably) not burning-building fear, but your readers do have fears.

  • Maybe they’re afraid this product won’t solve their problem
  • Maybe they’re afraid they’re going to throw money away (again)
  • Maybe they’re afraid they won’t ever use your solution

So speak to those fears.

In a burning building, you’re scared of moving because being burned hurts like crazy, you can’t breathe too well, and you might die. Those are your current fears. They are big and valid, and factual data about fires won’t help you move.

But if the firefighter starts talking to you in a calm, authoritative voice that convinces you he actually has a way out of this, you’re going to listen up. You’re ready to hear him say something that makes the whole situation less scary.

He’ll probably give you some very specific instructions.

You’re going to take just two steps forward, and I’m going to take your hand. Then I’m going to guide you out of here. Don’t focus on what’s going on around you. Just take my hand.

You can tell he’s a professional, that he’s done this before, and that if you just stick with him and follow the clear instructions, you’re going to be all right.

Sound familiar?

Help prospects move beyond purchase paralysis

It should. This is the core message of almost every piece of persuasive copy you’ve ever read.

Hey, I know you’re afraid of buying this product because of (specific reasons). But you know what? It’s going to be okay. I’ve been where you are now, and I know the way out of here. So just take my hand, click on the button that says Add to Cart, and in just a moment you’ll have the solution that makes it all okay. Click the button and let’s get you out of this mess, okay?

“Let’s get you out of this mess,” is the simple and satisfying underlying message.

Here are the steps:

  1. Acknowledge and empathize with the prospect’s fear.
  2. Demonstrate that you’re trustworthy. Social proof helps; so does pre-selling with exceptional content.
  3. Convey your authority. Let the prospect know you can handle this kind of mess with ease.
  4. Let the prospect see what the way out looks like. Show the benefits of your solution.
  5. Give clear and specific instructions for what to do next.

Persuasion is about saying:

Stick with me, kid. We’ll get you to the solution, safe and sound.

Most people are just waiting to be persuaded that they have nothing to fear. Good copywriting is about helping them make a move.

About the Author: If you’re afraid of writing your own web copy, all you have to do is make one small step. Contact Men with Pens, and James will hold your hand all the way to web copy freedom.

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  1. Address potential fears up front is an excellent strategy – appealing to emotions has always been persuasive, the key is to do it undetectably – you don’t want the potential customer to emerge from your attempt to hypnotize them and say, “hey, you’re just trying to persuade me like all the rest…”

  2. Hey James,

    As I was reading this I was thinking about the times that I was looking at purchasing something and didn’t. Now I realize why I didn’t purchase, it didn’t hit my emotion.

    Chat with you later…

  3. Removing fear and doubt is by far the highest priority of persuasive and sales copy. All too often we can see examples of where this rule has been forgotten. It’s nice to be reminded of this again.

  4. “Figuring out what scares your prospect is the copywriter’s first job.” Couldn’t agree more, and it’s probably the most important puzzle piece.

    As Daniel Levis wrote, “…your greatest asset as a copywriter is your curiosity…into the realities of your customer.”

  5. A couple of other points:

    If you’re information is exclusive (i.e. you know something before the rest of the crowd) point that out early because that causes people to pay attention and adds to the persuasive appeal of your message.

    Studies show talking about what the customer stands to lose as opposed to what they might gain or save is also more persuasive. “If you don’t do what we recommend you’ll lose $500 a year,” is more persuasive than, “If you do what we’re recommending you’ll save $500 a year.”

    Nice article. Brian

  6. Great and Awesome Post!

    We have to realise that our visitors are real people like you and us…with hopes and with dreams..treat them like you would like to be treated yourself..take them by the hand..and you will be amazed by the results..


  7. Really good advice and great comments! Now I just need to figure out what will work for my target audience! :)

  8. Until you try it you don’t realise how hard it is to get people to buy something online. Alleviating their fears with something like a 100% money back guarantee definitely helps.

  9. Hey James,

    As always, you write great and informative posts. I love the image that “purchase paralysis” makes. What’s great about this post is that it works for nearly every market (if not every market)… it’s not all about writing either. When I lived in Guatemala we used these same procedures to help people change their lives as well.

  10. Such a brilliant article James! And just what I needed, when I needed it. I love the idea of holding your prospects hand to the buy it now button :)

  11. claudia kelley :

    Really good article.

  12. This is a great post about addressing fears and prompting action. I will apply this lesson this week to a sales letter I am writing. I already have ideas about bullet points I will need to revise.

    Thank you!

  13. @Chris, I agree, this can be applied to every topic I can think of, because it addresses an underlying human tendency (to freeze when uncertain/afraid).

  14. Bob Jenkins :

    Real estate. Purchasing real estate is not a small matter, easy to recover from if you make a mistake. The customer’s fears, in most cases, are warranted. If they mess up, it will likely be life-changing, and if they mess up because you neutralized their fears, you have some measure of responsibility. So you have to be sure, dead sure, of your advice or directions before you tell them not to fear buying that $1.2 million dollar home because it will surely appreciate in value and you can always sell it if something happens, don’t worry I’ve been here before and you can trust me.

  15. @Brian – Your comment made me think back on those dramatic movies where a main character has to make a pivotal decision and is frozen for a moment.

    There’s always someone else that shouts, “JOHN! TAKE MY HAND OR YOU’LL DIE!” Pointing out the potential loss can often wake up that character, who then grabs John’s hand, gets pulled up from the ravine of death, kisses him with passion and they go off to become lovers united.

    Other characters go one step further. “TAKE MY HAND OR YOU’LL DIE, JOHN! Come on, you can do it… hey, remember that beer you owed me? That’s what we’ll do. We’ll get out of this and you can come bring me to that favorite bar of yours with Sally the waitress and buy me the biggest damned beer ever, John. It’ll be cold and good and…”

    Not just pointing out the loss, but also providing a clear picture of the outcome and future.

    (… in which Sally obviously falls in love with this reckless John-boy and takes him to bed forever.)

  16. I found this post helpful to me. I’ve picked up a book on web on copywriting before and it was good, but I never understood really how to structure it and why. But after what you’ve written I need to take a look at my website and see if I am “Hand Holding” the people that come to my see it. I love reading this blog!

  17. Love the idea of taking the reader by the hand and smoothing the way for them. No matter what you want them to do — my own site doesn’t sell anything beyond the idea that I’m pretty entertaining — it’s always easier to lead them to that realization and make it as pleasant and easy to accept as possible. But hey, I’m Southern. We’re all about the hospitality and good manners of making others comfortable in our space.

  18. Hey James,
    Interesting comparing marketing to a dangerous situation, using persuasive skills to get your message through whether you are a fireman or marketing to somebody.

  19. I have been checking out your site . . . good advice for the writer . . . thanks.

  20. Thanks for the fire analogy– that was really helpful in understanding the concept.

    I remind myself that a confused mind always says no. Sometimes it is fear that keeps us from moving forward and sometimes it is just an overwhelmed – overstimulated mind.

    My work is with busy moms who want to take great care of themselves. I have found the shut down that happens when they’ve been bombarded with waaayy too much health information (and all of it conflicting) is the emotional block I need to work through.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article.

  21. hey great post, it really is all about identifying the prospects fears and problems and then they will listen. once you have done that its all about how you can put them problems right. For someone who is desperate even a small chance that there problem can be solved is enough for them to buy.

    really great post

    jonny balfour

  22. @Peter – I love finding analogies and similarities in just about anything!

    @Lisa – A confused, overwhelmed mind always says no – now that’s for sure!

  23. Nice article, I’ve never quite heard it put like this.

    I often find companies will worsen the paralysis by offering too many options.

  24. Put this in the best of CB. Frolicking awesome post.

  25. I just wrote a post on this same theme, titled “Your Fear of the Public Eye: Get Over It”. It’s at

    I hope it helps,

    + Mel

  26. “Ever been so scared you can’t move?”

    This happened recently when I realized I was out of brown sugar for my apple/pear/banana desert.

    I survived though. Somehow.

    This post made me think about the 3 reasons why people do buy my products

    1) High quality

    2) Referrals

    3) Telling a good story

    Great post, I loved it, very inspiring :)

  27. This is a great way to learn about sales copy. I could have never understood about writing a sales copy confidently. The analogy of using a fireman made it so much easier to understand. Thanks, James.

  28. It sounds like it is the Tao of selling .Actually ,we are always selling. We are selling ourself when we want to win other’s trust.
    However,we often state how good we are rather than what benefit we will bring to them.
    What James said is quite a help to me.Thanks.

  29. Great post James. This information versus persuasion – I could use help on that. Time to give Men with Pens a call…

  30. Great post, I need to go back and revisit some of my copy to see if I’m taking care of the buyer’s fear. I fear that I am not.

  31. Some great points James. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could ask each reader directly what their fear was? I guess taking the greatest fear out of the known fears and targeting that is what we’re left with. If we know that. Targeting the greatest fear seems to be the challenge and after that it’s comes the “saving” part.

  32. @Brian, I’ve actually done exactly that — asked my list & blog readers what it was about my topic that was difficult for them. (Difficult & “scares me” are closely related.) Then I turned that into a value-building sequence for my email list, and my next step will be to create it as a free e-book that I can use in promotions.

    You can also keep a good watch on what people gripe about in blog comments, on forums, and on Twitter. You can very often see the fear underneath the crankiness.

  33. This is great advice, except for this. We must be watching different movies. When someone says, “Take my hand, john, or you’re going to die,” that’s usually when the secondary character falls to his death. Picture it, John is hanging there, and reaches out to take the heroine’s hand. You can almost see the slippery sweat dripping, and slowly at first, then in a flash, the grip is lost and John goes flailing wildly down – to wherever.
    But I get the idea!

  34. Hi guys,

    A lot of people are afraid of buying products online, because you can easily become a victim of some type of scam.

    Kind regards,

  35. Mary E. Ulrich :

    Great analogy James. I wouldn’t have thought of copywriters and firefighters as needing the same skills, but you are right. Fear, paralysis, facing scary situations is easier if you have a person with authority who will give directions and hold your hand.

    You have such a great way of telling a story, embedding psychology and giving us useful scripts and business strategies. It is all about communication and trust.

  36. I must admit: I never thought of it this way.

    Very useful prospective, James – I will have to mull it over and see how I can apply it in my business.

    Ana Hoffman

  37. It’s also a fact that not only fear keeps some from purchasing, but if they have too many choices they won’t purchase either. A confused mind will not buy.

  38. These are some great tips. I think emphasizing the guarantee really helps – or offering through a reputable payment processor like Paypal ….

  39. Removing fear and doubt is by far the highest priority of persuasive and sales copy. All too often we can see examples of where this rule has been forgotten. It’s nice to be reminded of this again.

  40. Great post James. Your 5 steps provide a great checklist for what needs to be included on any sales landing page. I’m off to review my own right now…