Lean in closer, because we’re about to embark on a journey into the human mind to discover what makes people tick.
No, this is not whackadackary stuff. This is a deep dive into the science of our brain matter.
You see, we may think we’re captain of the ship “Me.” But science shows that, more often than not, we’re driven by mental scripts, urges, and subconscious cues.
This is interesting because as bloggers we need to continually challenge ourselves to improve our writing. We want our clients to say “WOW your writing pops,” right?
Well, one of the reasons psychologists rely on theory rather than common sense is that common sense isn’t common. That, and because theory is more reliable in producing a consistent result.
If you want to create content for your clients that always gets consistent, reliable results — but right now you lack the skills, ideas, and structure to do it — these principles could provide the answer.
Let’s delve into some brain matter and explore what science says about reaching people on a deeper level. And to make this as practical as possible, along the way I’ll share examples to demonstrate how to use the principles to create fresh, interesting and more compelling content.
1. REASONING: Mindlessness Theory
Back in the 1970s and 80s, Dr Ellen J. Langer, PhD, a psychologist in mindlessness, did a study revealing that people do most things mindlessly.
The study involved a three-part experiment:
- First, people were interrupted at a photocopying machine and asked: “May I use the photocopying machine.” The result was that 60% of people moved aside.
- Second, people were asked to use a two-part statement that included reasoning. For example: “May I use the photocopying machine because I’m in a rush.” The result was that 94% of people moved aside.
- Third, and here’s where it gets really interesting, people were asked to use a two-part statement without a valid reason. For example: “May I use the photocopying machine because I have to make copies.” The result was that 93% of people still moved aside.
From this experiment we see that a two part statement delivers a 30% increased result!
According to Dr Langer’s conclusions, the human brain is geared to respond mindlessly, in automated ways, to mental scripts that judge only resemblance to a reasoned two-part statement.
As bloggers we can use the concept of a ‘reasoning response’ in sentence structure to persuade readers to take more action.
Key reasoning words:
- Seeing as
- Being that
- Due to
- Now that
- After all
The goal here is to use a two-part statement with an interlinking ‘reasoning’ word.
- You should read this entire article, because there are four more interesting psychology principles to help you create better content.
- I think you should subscribe to the BAFB newsletter, considering it provides some of the best cutting edge tips for freelance bloggers to grow their businesses.
Where can you use this reasoning response?
- Opening or closing sentences of the introductory paragraphs.
- Bullet point lists on sales pages or within the post copy itself.
- Places where you want to persuade readers toward more action.
And, as Langer’s study showed, it doesn’t even have to be a good reason — just give one!
If you found that interesting, keep on reading, because that’s just the beginning of what we’re about to discover. 🙂
2. NOVELTY: Stimulus Novelty Theory
Researchers have discovered that the human brain is attracted to new information, which triggers our sense of motivation and reward.
This response occurs through activation of your hippocampus (a part of your midbrain), promoting the release of your ‘feel good’ hormone, dopamine. Using medical resonance imaging (MRI), researchers can see neural clusters of activity light up in the midbrain when stimulated by novelty and anticipation of reward.
As interesting as that is, how can bloggers use this to create new twists within content and build more anticipation?
Joanna Weibe, from Copyhackers, says people “need to remember messages as they move through your site.”
One way to achieve this is by using what researchers from Purdue University call “The Bizarreness Effect” — which basically means making your words seem new and memorable.
An easy way to add novelty and bizarreness to content is to move away from ‘common’ phrasing. Don’t be afraid to add a bizarre story, something random, or a weird word to foster recall.
How about stating that ‘this product is not some gimcrack doodad.’ Those are bizarre words, right?
They are real words — gimcrack means ‘dodgy’ or ‘flimsy’, and doodad means ‘small item I’ve forgotten the name of’. The point is, it sounds interesting. I found this cool tool called Word Hippo where you can find novelty, fun and bizarre words. You might like to give it a try.
Sophie uses bizarreness and novelty really well in her writing here on BAFB. I can go to any page and find something bizarre that stands out, adds a real quirk and draws me in.
For example, in the FAQ at the bottom of her one-on-one mentoring page she writes:
Q: “I’m all the way down at the bottom of the page now. Will I have to scroll back up to choose my mentoring package?”
I laughed when I read that, and it really stuck in my mind.
On Sophie’s freelance writing website her opening words are:
You Need Words That Make Shit Happen.”
And again at the top of this post she says:
…the differences outweigh the similarities by approximately one metric shit-ton.”
Okay, swearing is not for everyone, but it makes Sophie’s writing feel novel and memorable — I want to read on and learn more.
Another simple thing you can do to add novelty is use the word or concept of “new.”
New products, new resources, new releases, latest and greatest, new research, new people on the block, new way to look at things, new opinion… simply frame what you’re writing about as “new.”
And don’t forget about images. You’ll notice many sales pages use left then right positioning for images and text, like this one:
The idea of alternate image placement is that you’re keeping the brain engaged by injecting novelty.
3. CURIOSITY: Information Gap Theory
Think of a time you’ve been curious. It appears as a sharply risen appetite that motivates you to learn more. And yet, the appetite is often easily satisfied.
Curiosity is with us from childhood. Think of what drives all our learning behaviors as children — it’s curiosity and the desire for more information. We’re born with an inner drive to be competent and effective, and a motivation to master our environment.
Research into curiosity dates back to the 1960s, and indicates our curiosity gets activated by a combination of external and internal factors. For example, we read something (external stimulus) that provokes emotions (internal stimulus) and this makes us curious to know more.
To use curiosity effectively in content creation, you need to build curiosity early in your article, and then resolve it toward the end. That’s the whole idea of the ‘information gap’ theory — the person reading is motivated to close the gap.
The research suggests it’s important to resolve curiosity, because people want the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from the resolution. If you raise curiosity and don’t provide at least some kind of resolution, even a partial one, people will feel let down — and then they won’t want to expose themselves to future information from you.
Another interesting fact is that curiosity is stronger for insight than for incremental information.
Insight can throw light on the entire problem, inspiring motivation. Incremental info, on the other hand, is where a single piece of information about a big problem is given, but that info is unlikely to yield any immediate solution. Therefore it won’t necessarily inspire motivation.
This explains why insightful revelations, experiences and stories often work so well in content creation.
We’d all likely assume that the more a person knows, the less curious they would be. But according to research, this isn’t the case.
The studies suggest that it’s harder for curiosity to drive someone who has absolutely no knowledge of the subject or topic. Whereas, if someone is already on the road to closing the information gap, they’re more motivated and curiosity actually increases as they learn more about a topic.
Some ideas for activating curiosity in content:
- Pose a curiosity-inducing question — people naturally want to know the answer to the question.
- Present a riddle or puzzle — people become curious to solve it.
- Lay out a sequence of events like a story — people want to know how the story ends. It’s also common that people try to guess the outcome and therefore want to know, not only the outcome of the story, but whether their prediction was correct.
- Break expectations — present something completely different, an opposing view, a negativity, something controversial, a blatant statement, a completely new angle. This triggers curiosity in the search of an explanation.
- Repeat messages — often we think that repeating the same message is boring or won’t appeal to people. But the opposite is true. When you discover a piece of information and think, “I knew that! But I forgot,” it sparks curiosity about what else you might have forgotten! Past attainments serve as a reference point that promotes increased curiosity, too.
4. BENEFITS: Broaden and Build Theory
We’ve all heard about the importance of expressing benefits over features. But, can we drill down even further beyond benefits, to connect readers so they ‘experience’ what we write?
According to research, yes we can.
Jeff Thull, CEO and President of Prime Resource Group, says:
Quit selling your solution as you would sell any other product and start selling like a ‘business advisor,’ a job that requires the diagnostic skills of a doctor. You must help customers unearth and comprehend their most compelling problems.”
This is really the basis of the broaden and build theory. In many cases, people don’t know what their problems are. And, they certainly don’t know what the solution is.
This is important for us bloggers to remember in our writing.
Using the broaden and build theory we need to diagnose, reveal, and thoroughly explain the true problem. This is the broaden phase and first helps to connect a person to the problem.
Then, we build into the vision of positive emotions.
According to research, the broadening phase expands people’s ‘thought-action’ repertoire, much like opening a doorway that gives them a view of what they can do. Broadening a person’s view enables them to tap into their personal, physical, intellectual and psychological resources — it literally broadens a person’s cognitive ability and builds on their inner resourcefulness.
I once heard the motivational speaker Tony Robbins say that a person’s ability to achieve their goals isn’t hampered by a lack of resources, but by lack of resourcefulness.
Expanding a person’s thought-action repertoire enables them to become resourceful and this is very empowering. When we can help broaden people’s mindset it inspires indirect and long-term adaptive benefits — they begin to change. This is frequently the goal of content creation. We essentially want people to do something that we know will benefit them.
Interestingly, when people enter the realm of broadening (cognition) and building (positive emotions), they conceptualize this as durable into the future — meaning it can bring about long-term change.
Here are some ideas for using the benefits principle in the content you write:
- Identify and speak to people’s day-to-day problems.
- Recognize their pain, diagnose it, then broaden and build the solutions to their problems.
- Use visualization statements and stories to build a vision of the future into your content.
- Convey benefits in your articles or on landing pages.
- Use bullet point lists of benefits.
The next principle, of contrast, connects directly to benefits as well.
5. CONTRAST: Expectancy Theory
When we decide to do something — purchase a product, become a freelance blogger — our decision to pursue the goal often lies in our perception and expectation of being able to achieve a particular outcome.
This is the premise of expectancy theory — that people will choose a certain behavior over another based on the expected outcome. Note that this is often a perception. It’s a cognitive process that involves weighing up different elements, predicting the outcome and then holding a belief that the outcome can truly be fulfilled.
Research shows that belief is based on past experience, self-confidence, and the perceived difficulty of the goal. The perception of expectancy is also based on goal difficulty, along with competence and control.
Ultimately, our content is designed to sell, right? We’re either trying to sell a product or sell an idea. We want to get people to like us and subscribe. We want a particular outcome.
So, we have to get the reader to perceive a certain expected outcome in order to motivate them to take action.
The more desirable the outcome is perceived to be, the more likely someone will be motivated to do the work to achieve that outcome. Let’s face it, everything is work. Even reading emails is work, so we have to make it worthwhile.
A more practical way to think about building expectations is to use the contrast of positive and negative. By playing on the positives, you get the reader to envisage and experience the outcome. By playing up the negatives against the positives, you induce people to take action. This is where expectancy theory ties back into the broaden and build theory.
According to the copywriting expert Ray Edwards, using a transformational story is one way to position the positive against the negative. Ray shares this example:
Telling the story of Bob, the frustrated business owner who was on the edge of bankruptcy, whose family had lost faith in him, and who, out of desperation tried one last idea that saved his business… is infinitely more powerful than simply saying, “One day, Bob figured out the answer.”
See how this story broadens the problem (amplifies the issues) then builds on the positive emotions and the solution?
Ray suggests that the purpose of the transformational story is to connect the reader to the positive transformation (the expectancy).
For example, if I was also a frustrated business owner who was reading that story and believed I could also do what Bob did, perceiving that I could actually achieve the goal, I’d want to take action. I’d connect to the story and believe that if I do what Bob has done, I can expect it will result in a similar outcome for me.
If I’m reading a piece of content, that’s what I’m evaluating — and the more I believe the perceived outcome, the more likely I am going to be motivated to do something.
The best questions to ask as you’re writing are:
- What’s in it for the reader? (Remember, it’s always about the reader.)
- What will they take away from this piece of content?
There are a few additional things the research on expectancy theory shows. Keep these in mind to include in your content:
- Self-efficacy — eg, ‘I am just like you, so if I can do it so can you.’ Make people believe they have the skills and abilities to be able to accomplish things and emphasize the ‘can do.’
- Goal difficulty — eg, ‘Anyone, even beginners, can get involved in Pitchfest.’ Opening up the possibility of success by showing that the goal can be achieved by anyone.
- Control — eg, ‘You can decide what direction is best for you, based on your individual needs.’ People want to know they have some control over the outcome, because no one really likes to be told what to do.
We always need fresh new ideas to make our content stand out from the crowd.
Just like psychologists use theory as a way to organize a great deal of internal information and pull a plot together, so can we writers use these principles to make our content more interesting, more engaging, and more enjoyable to consume and share.
What insights did you draw from these principles? Did they give you ideas for new content?