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?
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.
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.