Updated: Oct 17
Here at A Thousand Monkeys, we believe that all copywriting should be persuasive. Copy has a goal – whether that’s sales, clicks, or likes – and persuading your reader is the way to achieve it.
Persuasive writing is a huge subject with endless tricks and techniques to try. But there’s no point just randomly using psychological techniques without an understanding of what they’re for or what you’re trying to achieve.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
The three modes of persuasion
Modern copywriting owes a lot to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle pretty much invented the idea of persuasive writing as we know it.
According to Aristotle, persuasion has three elements, what we call the three modes:
Ethos – make the speaker sound credible
Pathos – appeal to the audience’s emotions
Logos – create a logical argument
The persuasive techniques we use today fall into one or more of these three categories. A powerful piece of copy might use all three modes.
Ethos: make the speaker sound credible
What makes a good public speaker? More than any other factor, confidence is what convinces people to agree with them.
A speaker can be the world expert on a subject, but if they don’t seem confident, people aren’t going to be persuaded. The reverse is also true – Donald Trump, for example, was a failed businessman with no experience of politics who became president by sounding confident, no matter what he was saying.
So, to give your writing authority and credibility, one of the most important things you can do is make it sound confident.
Here are some of the best ways to do it:
Overly formal writing sounds like you’re lying about something or trying to cover up your own uncertainty about the subject. When we speak passionately about something, we don’t need to read off a script, we use our own words – and for most of us that means using contractions like “I’m” instead of “I am”.
The only time you should definitely avoid contractions is when you need a very clear instruction, like “you must not do this”.
Make it readable
As the saying goes, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Breaking a complex idea down into straightforward copy isn’t dumbing down – it takes real skill and confidence in the subject matter.
Here are some simple rules to follow:
1. Don’t write a sentence with more than 25 words
2. Vary sentence length – some very short, some a bit longer
3. Stick to one point per paragraph
4. Don’t use a long word where a short one will do
5. Explain complex terms and acronyms if you have to use them
Use quotations and testimonials
If you’re reading this, you probably write on behalf of an organization (not as yourself). But, according to sales wisdom, people don’t buy from businesses, people buy from people.
If you can’t write in the first person (“I did this”), you can borrow some authenticity by using quotes from real people.
Pathos: appeal to the audience’s emotions
Fundraisers and direct mail writers know that people make decisions based on their emotions. A story of a starving child (accompanied by a distressing picture) is far more effective at encouraging donations than facts about nutrition or life expectancy.
Many copywriting techniques are designed to appeal to the reader’s emotions. These techniques are designed to make someone curious to find out more. Or use inspiring words and positive phrases to encourage involvement. Or evoke fear of a particular challenge.
Emotional trigger words and phrases have long been a part of persuasive writing. Keep an eye out for these in ads online and you’ll start to notice which ones work well. Examples include:
We’ve all felt the fear of missing out. It’s a powerful driver of everything from going to a social event when you’re already tired from the night before to buying a product you don’t need because everyone else has one.
TripAdvisor, Checkatrade, Yell… there are countless examples proving that we like to have our choices validated by others. No one wants to buy an untested product or be the first person in a restaurant.
Social proof could come in the form of testimonials, reviews, or even stats about how many customers have purchased your product or used your service.
Readers are selfish. They don’t want to hear about your company, they want to hear about how your company can benefit them. Say “you” far more often than “we” and you’ll keep the focus on what’s in it for the reader.
Logos: create a logical argument
Being credible and appealing to emotions can only get you so far. What you’re saying still needs to make sense to your reader.
Making your writing logical is often a case of just planning ahead. Plan out your goals, the main points you need to cover, and any insights you have about your readers. Preparation always pays off and your audience will notice the difference.
When it comes to writing, there are a few extra tricks that will help.
A well-structured piece of copy is far easier to understand than a collection of rambling thoughts. Why not used a tried and tested structure like CIGAR?
Context – give a general introduction that readers will agree with
Issue – identify the problem
Goal – explain what could be achieved by solving that problem
Answer – give readers the solution to the problem
Resolution – explain the action or next steps for your reader
Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things. Repetition helps us remember things.
Strong rhythm in writing makes it easier to read. If you want to get really geeky we could start talking about anapestic tetrameter, but for most copywriting that won’t be necessary. A basic rhythmic technique is the rule of three – using three similar-sounding phrases or words in a row. Once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.
There are lots of good reasons to include questions in your copy. If you’re trying to structure an argument, questions are a great way to get people thinking. And they naturally lead on to the next bit of copy as people want to find out the answer.
Put it all together
Now you know the techniques, it’s time to put them to use in a piece of copy.
For short bits of copy like headlines or social posts, often just one technique is enough. For longer pieces of writing, you might need to combine techniques from more than one mode to really make your point.
To really elevate your copy, try to use an unexpected mode. For example, a report about climate change would typically involve lots of logic. But the consequences have an emotional impact so try to evoke an emotional response in your reader too. Or say you’re writing a fundraising piece, using lots of emotional language. Don’t forget to add some credibility to your cause to give donors confidence in you.
The most important thing is to just try new ideas. You never know what technique might have the most impact on your audience.