Copywriting: Psychology Reveals a List of Persuasive Techniques

Words have power. Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t been in the online marketing game for very long. Every list of persuasive techniques for copywriting includes evidence that this is absolutely true. The right words can increase conversions, and the wrong ones can be devastating.

But why?

Image by Petar Milošević / CC by
Image by Petar Milošević / CC by

What makes certain words so rich with connotation and others fall flat? The answer is complex. The power of our written language, including persuasive techniques in writing, comes from multiple sources including our culture, our history and some things beyond our control – our psychology.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand all of the tricks our brains play with words. There are lessons that are straightforward enough any marketer can make use of them. Consider this list of persuasive advertising techniques used in advertising:

  1. The Power of Rhyme

Image from the Library of Congress / Public Domain
Image from the Library of Congress / Public Domain

Think about how we teach children to read. How many of those little board books included rhymes?

There’s a reason those rhymes are so effective, and it’s because our brains not only can remember the rhyme more effectively, but also because things that rhyme are seen as holding a measure of truth.

As strange as it seems, if it rhymes, it’s more likely to register as being trustworthy.

A study at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania researched this very thing and showed that using a “poetic form” positively impacts the perception of accuracy for study participants.

This was especially true in regards to human behavior.

What the brain easily understands, it perceives as a greater truth. So the lesson here is to use rhyme when it works in your copy.

Granted, you don’t want too much rhyme or you’ll wind up writing stories for toddlers, but a bit of clever rhyme will stick in the minds of your readers, and that’s a good thing.

  1. Mindlessness and Justification

list of persuasive techniques xerox
Photo by Solomon203 / CC by

Ever used a copy machine in a busy office? You’ve probably experienced one of the most popular studies about using justification.

It boils down to how to effectively skip the line at the copier. In essence, those who asked to skip the wait and make copies using the word “because” were allowed to do so almost all of the time.

The key was to explain WHY you needed to skip the line and the study showed that you didn’t even need to have a good reason.

One test sentence:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

Worked just as well as another test sentence:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

The first sentence actually explained the need. The second didn’t offer a reason, just the “because”. But both of them worked more than 90 percent of the time. This taps into what researchers call mindlessness. Essentially we do stuff on autopilot in certain social scenarios.

Think of that “because” as a trigger word for our brains. It helps us make sense, even when the actual sentence doesn’t make much sense, as the example above shows.

This is a powerful lesson for marketers in how to write copy. The actual reason behind your justification is important, but it’s not as important as including keywords like “because.” It short, use “because”.

  1. The Psychology of Persuasion

list of persuasive techniques choice
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Allowing choice is a powerful strategy. Parents know it. Teachers know it. And marketers should know it. When would-be customers are reminded that they are free to NOT choose when you’re selling, they are more likely to buy what you’re selling.

It’s almost like you’re double-dog daring them to not do something, so they instinctively want to do it even more.

This effect – the “But you are free” effect – was shown to have hugely powerful persuasive impact in a study performed at Western Illinois University. With more than 22,000 participants, the researcher found that the phrase “but you are free” actually doubled the success rate of compliance, or conversion in marketer speak.

What might this look like on a webpage?

You might remind customers that they are “free to close this window, but…” or they are “free to turn down our special offer if…”

We would be honored for you to take this point to heart when you write your next sales pitch or landing page, but you are free to set up your campaigns any way you like!

See? It’s an offer that’s made to be refused! Double conversions are certainly nothing to sneeze at, but you are free to do so if you’d like! It’s hard to ignore psychology of persuasion that works this well!

  1. Illusory Truth Effect

Image by Dave Gandy / CC by
Image by Dave Gandy / CC by

Our brains work hard during the day and they can only make so many decisions before they run out of steam. The Illusory truth effect helps to make those decisions by providing shortcuts in the brain to prevent overload.

The more often we hear something, the more times our brain registers it as being important. Quite literally, the more often you hear it, the truer it is.

The Association for Consumer Research found this to be unequivocally true when they asked survey participants to rate a particular statement as being trustworthy. Some of the statements were repeated multiple times and others only showed up once. Consistently, the repeated statements were rated as more trustworthy.

What matters most is that you simply repeat yourself in your copy. The more times the customers sees it, hears it and reads it, the more likely they are to believe it’s true.

  1. Make Adjectives Easy to Feel

list of persuasive techniques emotions
from pixabay.com

Your describing words can make or break your content. Readers like things they can feel – sometimes almost literally. A bad day isn’t as terrible as a rough day. A nice ride isn’t as good as a smooth ride.

Textural adjectives, or adjectives that relate to physical sensations, actually activate the brain in a different way. A researcher at Emory studied this effect and showed that textural adjectives tickled the somatosensory cortex of the brain while the more standard, literal adjectives didn’t.

While there is ongoing research about how this ties together with calls to action, it does tell us that certain adjectives make your reader’s brain more engaged in the text.

This should go right along with what your English teacher has told you for years – don’t use boring words! When you learned how to write copy you learned to use those textural adjectives, especially when readers are least expecting it to spice things up copy-wise.

  1. Serial Positioning Effect

We know readers scan. This is why we use bullet points and bold text. No brainer there – it is common knowledge in marketing circles.

But have you thought about how you position those bullet points or bold fonts? It turns out the brain reads those with greater emphasis in certain areas.

Imagine a list of words or the like. Perhaps the speech you were supposed to memorize back in grade school. It stands to reason that you – like most of us – can remember the beginning of the end of that speech much better than you can remember the middle. This is even truer with a list of words or phrases that have just been shown to you for immediate recall.

That’s serial positioning.

The first word or two are easiest to remember (primacy) and the last few words stick around as well (recency).

Those at the beginning get more brain time and those at the end are read last. So the trick here is to put your most important elements at the beginning or the end of a list. Or the beginning and end of an email. And it wouldn’t hurt to keep those lists and emails short and organized as well when possible.

  1. A Powerful Postscript

Image by Petar Milošević / CC by
Image by Petar Milošević / CC by

P.S. I love you.

Well, perhaps not (no offense), but we’ve all heard a song or seen a move where the postscript, the P.S., is a deciding factor.

It’s not by accident that the last line of your letter or email is such a powerhouse. It’s the last thing that your readers will see, helping you tap into that recency, or remember-what-you-read-last, effect.

The P.S. has been used in sales letters and direct mail for years. It’s used so much because it works so well.

One prominent direct mail copywriter, noted that as many as 79 percent of direct mail readers check out the postscript first. Could it be that we’ve simply been trained to look for the action item at the bottom of the page?

Seems reasonable. But regardless of why we look at the bottom of the page, know that we do and use that trick accordingly.

Two big lessons.

1) You should always include a postscript.

2) Your postscript should include a reminder about your primary click-through action.

It shouldn’t be the only time you include a call to action, but if readers are only going to check out the last sentence, make it a good one!

This List of Persuasive Techniques Is All Psychological (Mostly)

Granted good copywriting is not all about brain research, but so much has been discovered about the brain and how it works in relation to words on the page or the screen it seems foolish to discount what we now know to be true.

You may not be able to use every trick, every time, but the persuasive techniques list here have been shown, researched and documented as being effective. Why not put them to work for you?

P.S. Made you look! See? It’s powerful! Tell us how you liked it in the comments. 

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