Why Emotion-Based Writing is Crucial to Your Business Goals

Image of Comedy and Tragedy Theatrical Masks

Allow me to tell you two stories.

One is about a person who — through tragic accident — had part of his brain destroyed, leading to revelatory advances in psychology and brain research.

The other, about a stout, whiskered man who thinks sound decisions can come only from a cool head.

Do emotions affect our decisions? Do cool heads truly prevail when faced with choices?

And who cares? What does all this have to do the art and craft of copywriting and content creation?

Let’s find out …

Sound decisions without emotions … really?

One story begins in an ill-shaped conference room — wide at one end, narrow at the other — with a concrete floor and about a dozen halogen lamps hanging from the ceiling. Down the center of the room is a long black conference table.

Around that table sits the CIO, VP of IT, a program manager, two project managers, the marketing manager, an art director, three designers, an editor, a proofreader, several people I didn’t know, and me.

We were all gathered to kick off a bi-annual drive to focus attention on the organization’s humanitarian division. The campaign decision makers included an executive and two of his assistants.

The executive was short, stout, with large eyes, sandy hair and whiskers, wide but pleasing mouth, fine teeth. He was frank, but warm-hearted.

My job was to present rough creative and copy. The concept was simple: It spoke about the plight of poor children in the global south — the design amplified that emotion. Could the reader spare $50 to build a well in Sri Lanka? Feed a child in South Africa for a month?

This was content marketing designed to produce an action. We were eager to test it. But the division executive wanted nothing to do with it.

He said he never wants to feel like he is being forced to make a decision. He didn’t want to “feel” when he gave. He just wanted it to be a logical financial decision.

Fat chance.

The American Crowbar Case

Cavendish, Vermont. September 13, 1848. Phineas Gage, a 25-year old railroad construction foreman is leading a group who’s blasting rock through a bend for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad.

Gage is setting a blast. It’s a procedure he’s performed countless times: drill a hole, pour blasting powder down the hole, slide in a fuse and cover with sand.

Tamp the sand with an iron rod. Light the fuse. Run.

The sand is crucial. It keeps the explosion from going straight up the hole, maximizing the horizontal blast. But it also protects the blasting powder from the iron rod when tamped.

No one is sure why, but Gage forgot to add sand. He went to tamp the powder, created a spark when his rod struck the rock — and the powder exploded.

The rod pierced and passed through Gage’s head, landing over 80 feet away. The amazing thing is that Gage survived with no more than a damaged left eye.

But he would never be the same man again.

The surprising meaning of “Somatic Hypothesis Marker”

The doctor who treated his wounds observed that Gage’s personality had changed. He was “no longer Gage.” Once shrewd, smart and energetic, he became restless, lustful and fond of foul language.

He became an instant curiosity sitting in Barnum’s American Museum. But scientists found him curious, too.

These days Gage’s case, “The American Crowbar Case,” is a textbook fixture in neurology and psychology. It’s thought to have launched (or at least reinforced) the idea of functional specialization in the human brain — the idea that certain parts of the brain control different functions of the body (language, memory or motor skills).

There have been some noted abuses of Gage’s story, but Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, renders a fair telling of the story as an introduction to his idea of “somatic hypothesis markers.”

In English “somatic hypothesis markers” means this:

Emotions are a critical component to decision making.

Contrary to what many believe, emotions don’t get in the way of making wise, rational decisions. In fact, Damasio and many others make the point that without emotions, we are incapable of being rational, let alone pulling the trigger on even the simplest of decisions.

He’s got the studies to prove it.

Why this sad story is significant

During his work as a neuroscience professor Damasio observed patients with brain damage (bilateral lesions of the VM cortex, to be exact) struggle severely with making personal and social decisions.

They had trouble planning their day, let alone their future. They struggled with choosing friends and activities. They could calculate clearly, but couldn’t make up their minds about what to wear, where to go or when to eat … let alone giving to charity.

Why tell this sad story? What is the possible significance of such a bizarre tale? The answer is simple.

If you’re a copywriter, then — by default — you should write to the emotions of your readers. You need to know the proper appeals to use in order to gain attention, stoke interest and push for action.

This starts with knowing who your reader is. And appealing to his fears and hopes. Tapping into his beliefs and painting a picture of the world he or she wants to live in.

The 4 emotional appeals you need to master

From that platform, you can begin to build a proper appeal. The appeal is the reason you give the reader to buy. And the appeal is almost always expressed in the headline. (I’ll discuss this in greater detail below.)

John Caples, in his book Tested Advertising Methods (a must-read for any copywriter), says that all effective advertising boils down to an effective appeal. Here are the top four:

  • Love — This covers the entire gamut of love, from friendship to lust. We don’t want to be lonely. We want our children to love us. We want to get married. We want to look good. Think Men’s Health or Beautiful People.
  • Greed — We want to win the lottery, buy the fastest motorcycle, or throw the best parties. We want to retire early or send our children to the best schools. We want to dominate every opponent on the tennis court or become the smartest guy on campus. This is Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week or Forbes.
  • Fear — We fear getting laid off, dying or losing a child. We fear the government taking away our rights, our employers pushing us around, or a spouse leaving us. We fear failure. Think Stansberry & Associates or divorce lawyers.
  • Duty or Honor — We feel an obligation to our spouse, children, and parents. To our country, company, or community. To the poverty-stricken, widowed, and orphaned. Think Army or life insurance.

Naturally, these appeals overlap. And here’s what they might look like in the world of advertising:

  • Make more money
  • Save more money
  • Secure a better retirement — sooner rather than later
  • Lose weight
  • Conquer depression
  • Secure health care
  • Get promoted
  • Outshine your competition (or neighbor)
  • Grab fame and attention
  • Enjoy life
  • Reduce chores
  • Gain more leisure
  • Maximize comfort
  • Get free from worry
  • Nab a bargain
  • Belong to the popular club

In truth, it all boils down to this: eliminating anxiety.

Give the reader the sense that you will bring him peace (financial, future, relational, future, security) … that you’ll solve his problems that keep him up at night … that you will give him a good night’s sleep … and you will win his attention.

This is what happens when you fall in love with the human condition.

What this means for copywriters

You’re in the advertising trenches. Doing the dirty work. Here’s what that should look like:

  • Capture the prospect’s attention — Nothing happens unless something in your copy makes the prospect stop long enough to pay attention to what you say next. And it starts with the headline.
  • Maintain interest — Keep the copy focused on the prospect, on what he or she will get out of using your product or service
  • Move the prospect to positive action — Unless enough prospects are turned into customers, your copy has failed, no matter what.

What this means for content marketers

You’re in the war room. Maps and charts spread out before you. Here’s what your decision making should look like:

  • Evaluate your content strategy — On a macro level you must evaluate how every piece of content is designed to stop prospects — according to the goal of each particular piece of content. And don’t forget the universal connection of each piece of content: each piece is a chapter in the never-ending story of your product, company, service, or idea. It must all fit together.
  • Maintain interest — Keep the content funnel focused on the prospect, on what he or she will get out of reading and sharing your content. Segment if necessary. And diversify the format.
  • Hire the right people — Great content begins with a great team — exceptional creators and passionate subject matter experts. If you can find those qualities in the same person, don’t hesitate to nab him or her.

What this means for analytic gurus

You’re with the databases and the dashboards. You’re looking for what works and what doesn’t work. Here’s what emotional decision making means to you.

  • What are you testing and why? — Claude Hopkins started it with Scientific Advertising — the concept of using the scientific method to create advertising (create a hypothesis, test and record results). The tools available to measure the effectiveness of your content are legion. It can overwhelm even the mightiest of number-crunching beasts. But we can’t forget to connect the dots. To ask the why.
  • Challenge everything — Accept nothing as true until you’ve tested it. Then …
  • Build a knowledge bank — Document successes and failures. Never invent the wheel more than twice.
  • Treat every ad as an ongoing test — Challenge sacred cows (even if they were proven the year before). Learn from every test.

My favorite copywriting formula

Let me close with one of my favorite formulas for writing copy: the four Ps.

  • Promise — This is your headline. This is where you get their attention by communicating a promise that speaks to them. You are hitting a pain point — you’re making an appeal. You’re making it worth their time. You’re promising to solve meaningful problems. And you are making it emotional.
  • Paint the picture — Show them what their life will look like if you fulfill the promise you made in the headline. Tell a story of someone who got the raise they wanted because they listened to your advice. Tell a story of the active life someone now lives because of the weight they lost due to your program. Show them what their own future would look like, if they listen to you.
  • Provide proof — The two principles above deal in emotion. Proof trades in logic. You are going to help validate their feelings with evidence. You are going to provide numbers, statistics and testimonials.
  • Push — You’ve satisfied both reason and emotion. You gave them both what they wanted. Now your reader can make a sound decision based upon the information before him. He can decide if what you have to offer fits into his life and goals.

To see this formula in action check out my article Gimpy Web Copy? Use This 4-step Formula to Make it Killer.

Your turn …

So here’s the moral of story: if the stout man with whiskers ever ran into the Phineas Gage, he might have to re-evaluate his beliefs about decision making.

Not because a one-eyed man and his iron bar would threaten him. But because the evidence that emotion is a critical component of decision making is definitive.

We all need emotions to make decision. And we (content marketers) need emotions to persuade people.

So, have you run into anyone with a resistance to emotional copy? How did you handle it? And what are your feelings about emotions in the art of persuasion?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share below.

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Reader Comments (66)

  1. says


    I absolutely love this article, and it’s one of the first I’ve seen of it its kind. You connect blogging, reading, and writing together using the cognitive science of Antonio Damasio, a genius in the field. He has special knowledge of emotion and cognition, and I’ve read his book “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain,” which explores the foundations of consciousness, the things that make us know we are alive. He is a powerful writer and I love the way you have worked with his ideas so powerfully.

    This article is a one of a kind, and I’ll be following your writing. I write about cognitive science and writing as well. Thank you for your insights,


    • says

      Thanks Darin. Yeah, there are other studies that make, and are making, the case more and more, but Damasio was the most visible and of course the Gage story is pretty sensational–hard to pass that up. :)

      • says

        This post is chock full of psychological goodness. Decisions made on emotional factors have been used by marketers for ages. You would do well with writing a post about psychological “triggers” that help monetize your business.

        Thank you for sharing your ideas,

  2. says

    I haven’t encountered anybody with resistance to the emotional appeals of copywriting before – and honestly, I can’t imagine running into anyone in the future who would feel that way. At a basic level, we all make purchase decisions using our emotions, even if we later try to justify those emotions with rational thought.

    And I’m guessing that the boss you describe in the first story isn’t totally immune to the appeal of emotions either – just the specific emotional case your team presented. Even wanting to feel like a cool-headed financial decision maker is rooted in undertaking actions that promote that specific feeling :)

  3. says

    You absolutely rock! This reminds me of a quote from my AWAI course; ”emotions create a link between your prospect and your product”. I tend to be more logical by nature…so I have to remind myself to lead with emotions in my copy. But it’s definitely worth it….I’m looking forward to reading more from you!

  4. says

    I use to be in sales, and the key to making the sale is that the prospect has to be emotionally involved. That’s why you can’t sell to the business owner’s underling. He isn’t emotionally involved. Pain must be personal, and it takes at least three questions to get to the real pain. Once you’re there you act like a doctor, asking them presumptive questions, and questions that show them that you’re the doctor! Soon they’ll say “Geez! I’ve got to do something about this!” And if your questions were good they also now see you as the problem solver! At that point they close themselves!

  5. says

    Great post Demien. Thanks especially for identifying the emotional appeals so clearly. I think that part of writing emotional copy is sharing your own understanding of reader anxiety and showing you can relate, but I find I’m sometimes conflicted on how much to share. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a measure to help writers with the balance between being relatable to reader’s anxieties and losing credibility for relating too much? If you have thoughts on this, I would love to read them.

      • says

        I write about so far trying and failing to become an author. I’m not yet concerned with turning readership into buyers as I’ve got nothing to sell, but I’m enjoying exploring my shortcomings and sharing the solutions I find. A friend of mine who’s been working in PR for years suggested that being so open about the mistakes I’m making may not be a good idea for the long-term. I guess she means in terms of respectability once I do have something I want to sell. Would love to hear your take on this.

  6. says

    If you start off with the idea that emotion-based copywriting is very effective (which is true) then a promise headline isn’t always the best. Since fear/anxiety is a prime emotion that leads to action, a good fear-based headline might not be a promise at all ( e.g. “If you have these 4 symptoms you could____.” “What Wall Street doesn’t want you to know about your 401K,” etc. ). Injecting a promise in these kinds of headlines might in fact dilute the fear/anxiety too soon and reduce the urgency to read further.

    • says

      That’s a good comment, and subject to testing. That’s the only way to prove your hypothesis true: a positive promise v. warning headline. Of course you could combine a positive promise headline with a negative warning sub headline (“Retire Early: What Wall street doesn’t want you to konw about your 401k”).

      • says

        I agree.
        You could also combine a negative/warning headline with a positive subhead, eg. “Find out how to protect your portfolio from the upcoming downturn.” Though sometimes you may want to wait till he lead paragraph to foreshadow the solution. Depends. Lots of combinations to test. Anyway, I should’ve mentioned – good, thought-provoking article.

  7. Jason Allen-Rouman says


    I receive all of Copyblogger’s emails and usually skim them before choosing to invest the time in actually reading each and every one of them. In the case of this article, I was hooked and rewarded. Thank you. It is perhaps the most cogent argument for writing appeal-oriented or action-inducing copy, as well as illustrating a road map to do so.

    Keep up the good work.


  8. says

    I’ve most commonly run into resistance to including emotion when I work with B2B marketers. The thinking typically is “Hey, this is all business, right? It’s just rational.” My response is to a) point out that B2B decisions aren’t made by disembodied corporate entities, they are made by people. Then I ask them to consider this equation relative to their experience of themselves: reason + emotion = decision to buy (or not). At that point, it typically becomes a self-evident truth. Thanks for the emotionally-satisfying-yet-well-reasoned post.

  9. says

    Well done, Demian. Definitely worth a bookmark. I’m working on a small ebook to give away at a new website I’m launching in January, and this article is helping me decide on the title.

    Someone may have already mentioned this, but to the four emotional appeals to master I’d add “hate.” You could arguably present it as the flip side of love or the ugly cousin of fear. Still, many folks have a “hate” button, and if you push it properly, you can get a response, too.

  10. says

    This is a great post, Demian, which I’ve already bookmarked and shared. Human beings are amazing – we like to think we’re such rational, intelligent beings and yet, more often than not, we’re motivated by such basic instincts.

    I think I’d call your number one ‘desire’ rather than ‘love’ – and I reckon pride and vanity should also be somewhere near the top of the list. You can’t surf the web for five minutes without coming across some advert promising shiny white teeth or a flat belly.

    Thanks very much for this – inspiring and helpful, as always,


  11. says

    This is the second time that I’ve heard Antonio Damasio’s name. He was mentioned in the book As We Speak to make the same point that you made here about the emotion’s effect on decision making. A different story was told though.

    It’s about an attorney who underwent surgery on the right side of his brain and lost the ability to make decisions.

    This post reinforced that point, and it was done extremely well. There was lots of great imagery.

    • says

      Yeah, you’ll probably come across Damasio’s name any time you are reading about the emotions and the impact they have on decisions. I originally came across his name in Taleb’s Black Swan.

  12. says

    Loved this post. I’ve seen (and been guilty of) sales copy that’s so anxious about selling that it induces heartburn.

    I’ve started posting eloquent reminders on all my to-do lists about meeting a client’s needs by -relieving- their anxiety instead. I copied your bit about eliminating anxiety and pasted it on my master to-do list. (I have a lot of lists). Thank you!

  13. says

    Nice Post,

    I think the key thing I learnt here is to keep the copy focused on the reader. Ensuring what you write benefits them in some way so they will want to keep on reading.


  14. says

    Hi Demian, Great write up on Damasio’s work! I’ve always been a huge fan of his studies and how it relates to marketing. Specifically, I love how much he shows that emotions are connected to decision making. People don’t necessarily need a BMW (logic), but they definitely want one (emotions). Steve Jobs did an amazing job of creating products that people wanted, not that they justified logically. Based on this, copywriters and marketers do well to tug at emotions and not just trust a rational appeal to get the job done. There’s a place for both, but emotions should come first.

    • says

      Well said, Joseph. If you think about it Jobs didn’t give anything new except better designed digital products–and an insane feeling of belonging to the superior group. Nobody needs the iPhone/iPad/mini–let alone the latest release. Yet…people mob the stores. (If you have a laptop and phone, really that’s all you need). That’s emotional.

  15. says

    This is an article every internet marketer should read. I like how you illustrate things here about emotion-based writing. The ones that I like the most are “The 4 Emotional Appeals” and “My favorite copywriting formula”. Thanks a lot for sharing. Great article! Excellent writing.

  16. says

    I loved this article and the comments that followed. A great “last read” for my day. I can’t think of anything to add that hasn’t been said, so I’ll leave it at that. :)

  17. says

    Thank you Demian. This reinforces ideas I first got from Dan Ariely. He has written two great books about the irrational aspects, including emotions, of our decision making. They totally support your ideas here. The books are ‘Predictably Irrational’ and ‘The Upside of Irrationality.’ Along with this blog, all marketers and copywriters can benefit from reading them.

  18. says

    Good stuff. Especially about getting to know your reader. However, I feel it’s also important to actually feel the emotion as you are writing. It’s not enough just to get to know the reader . . . you have to put yourself in their shoes and actually feel it for yourself. Only then can you truly connect with your reader on an emotional level.

    It goes without saying that such connection requires genuine honesty in your posts — don’t try to string your readers along. Blatantly trying to force a roller coaster of emotions upon your reader is obvious and just pisses people off. Treat your readers with the respect they deserve and they’ll respond to your honest appeals.


  19. says

    The point is you need to connect to the audience through your blog. Emotions are a critical component to decision making and this has been proved.

  20. says

    Lately I’ve been finding the real kicker has been to spice these emotional draws with a sense of achievement. By encouraging the reader to feel as though they achieved A-to-B, they are much more likely to share the source.

      • says

        People tend to share media that either makes them look funny or smart to their friends. A brief written example is evading me, so I’ll point to those meme-images that use characters to spell out “If you can read this, you’re smart”. People aren’t sharing these images because they provide humor. They are sharing them because it makes them look good.

  21. says

    Emotions are, in my opinion, the best part of writing. Being able to express you own, search and find others’ is the reason for creating content, I’d say.
    By emotions I mean expressing them with sincerity, most of all, let myself be vulnerable, even wrong.

  22. says

    Hmm, I think you fumbled your 3rd “P,” provide proof a bit. Cause I took the boss who hates emotion as a dodo. And though I know the story of Mr. Gage, I didn’t feel the crowbar : Phineas’ brain :: nonemotion : copy analogy. Then again, I read to the end, and am already a Scribe subscriber :)

  23. Tania Dakka says

    Holy smokes! How awesome was this?? Thanks so much for writing this for me, Demian! (You did, right? LOL) Love it and can’t wait to tear it apart and absorb it. Thanks again :)

  24. says

    I am so excited by this article! There has been a disagreement between the logical side of me and the creative writer in me about the importance of emotional content. You have now settled that dispute and I am now at peace with myself. LOL. FInally! Thank you so much, this article has been bookmarked and will be used for future reference, especially in regards to the 4 P’s! I greatly enjoy your writing. Thank you for sharing.

  25. says

    This is a bit controversial, because most people believed that for you to make good decisions, you need to do away with your emotions. But i admire the fact that you are viewing this matter from the other side of the coin. As a writer, appealing to your readers emotion is very important, it is a good way to capture their interest and make them act.

  26. Travis says

    I am just starting my journey as a writer, and this article is saved in my evernote ‘Manuals’ folder.

    Just incredible – thank you for writing this article. You have opened my eyes and showed me the ‘keys’ in appealing to people for action. This will help in all kinds of writing, let alone copywriting.

    Thanks again….

  27. says

    Nice Article Demian,

    I like the 4 P’s – I’ve heard it put differently (Information Gap) but your model works too – the trick I have is remembering it – tricky sometimes to find the balance between just writing naturally (which I am always drawn to) and following a formula such as this,

    makes a lot of sense though…

    take care & best wishes,

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