Every word has an emotion attached to it.
Every reader, regardless of profession or IQ, has an emotional reaction to your words. It is hardwired into the brain.
So when you are writing a blog post or other content for online marketing, your choice of words is important. Need convincing?
Legendary copywriter John Caples made a life study of persuasive writing. Once, he changed the word “repair” to “fix” in an ad and achieved a 20% increase in response. One word!
That illustrates an important rule of word choice for writers: When emotion meets intellect, emotion always wins. Analytical words activate the reader’s analytical brain instead of triggering an emotional response. Here is an example.
How would you respond to getting this email?
YOUR NAME HAS BEEN SELECTED BY COMPUTER TO PARTICIPATE IN A PRIZE-AWARD PROGRAM IN WHICH PRIZES ALREADY HAVE BEEN ALLOCATED. TO RECEIVE YOUR AWARD YOU ARE REQUIRED TO PHONE FOR AN APPOINTMENT BEFORE THE EXPIRATION DATE ABOVE.
It is loaded with intellectual words like “selected,” “allocated,” “receive,” and “required.” I think anybody with a pulse would be left cold by this message.
What if we replaced the intellectual words with emotional words? We might get something like this:
We have great news for you. You’re already a winner.
Here’s how you claim your award …
It is essentially the same information. But the words are far more likely to trigger a response.
Weeding the content garden
Like weeds in a garden, intellectual words can creep into your copy, choking its emotional impact. It is so unnecessary. When you are on the lookout for them, it is easy to shift word choice in favor of emotion. Here is a reference guide to get you started, courtesy of my copywriting hero Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Boring or persuasive? You choose
Every good piece of copy has an emotional outpouring of words. But there is a big difference between writing with emotion and dumbing down your message. It comes down to understanding people.
People make judgments about you, your ideas, or your brand based on emotion. Then they justify their response with logic. It happens in that order.
Your challenge as a blogger is to choose words that arouse their senses and lead them to their logical conclusion. Intellectual words don’t do that. They make you sound smarter. They also make you sound boring.
What would you add to the intellectual/emotional word list?
On the night of April 14, the ocean liner Californian has progressed to within fifteen hundred miles of her destination, Boston Harbor.
Second Officer Herbert Stone is due for watch on the bridge.
Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman glued to a pair of binoculars, staring toward the black horizon.
He, the apprentice, has sighted a steamer in the distance.
He can make out the ship’s masthead light, her red light, and a glare of white lights on her afterdeck.
Stone asks the apprentice to try for communication by means of the Californian’s Morse lamp.
A bright beacon signal is flashed.
No answer from the steamer.
“Will that be all, sir?”
Stone nods; the apprentice leaves to make record in the patent log.
Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge.
Glancing idly over the water, a white flash catches his eye—a white flash of light in the direction of the distant steamer.
Stone scratches his head, picks up the binoculars. Four more white flashes, like skyrockets burst in the heavens.
Stone notifies the ship’s captain.
Over the voice pipe, the captain asks if the flashes appeared to be company signals.
Stone cannot say for sure.
The captain then requests further communication attempt through the Morse lamp.
By now Stone’s apprentice has returned to the bridge. The beacon signal is employed once more.
Still no answer from the steamer.
Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three more flashes in the continuing light show, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights.
They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away.
At 1:40 a.m., Stone sees the eighth and last white flash in the night sky.
In one hour, all the steamer’s lights have vanished into the blackness.
It is not until 4:00 a.m. that anyone on board the liner Californian learns the rest of the story.
The curiosity hook
So begins The Light Show, one of hundreds of stories told by radio personality Paul Harvey. One of the hallmarks of his storytelling was the ability to build curiosity that made you pay attention until the last word.
Listeners would eagerly sit through the commercial break just to hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that the desire of every blogger and content marketer, to hold readers’ attention through to the last word of your content?
It is one of the great challenges in content marketing today, and cause for concern. Here is why.
Recently Slate magazine did an online readership study that quantifies the problem:
- 10% of readers don’t scroll through an article at all
- Most read only 60% of the article
- Most of the most-tweeted articles are not read completely
The antidote is to build curiosity into your copy to keep readers reading. I learned a copywriting trick that works wonders for this. I call it the curiosity hook. Never heard of it?
Let me explain.
A curiosity hook is a short sentence that signals something important or surprising is ahead. It is a transitional phrase that links two paragraphs either at the end of one, the beginning of the next, or as its own one-line paragraph.
There is a simple reason it works.
It introduces a question in the mind of the reader that can only be answered by reading on. Let me give you some examples:
- And that’s not all.
- There’s one more thing.
- Then I made a discovery.
- Let me explain.
- You won’t believe what happened next.
- Here’s why.
- That’s when things got weird.
- So read on.
- But there’s another reason.
- Now here comes the good part.
- Then it got interesting.
- The story doesn’t end there.
- Here’s the twist.
- It gets better.
- But I didn’t stop there.
- Then she came to a decision.
- I couldn’t stand it any longer.
- And then inspiration struck.
Each of these hooks creates curiosity by teasing the promise of new information. It pulls the reader into the next paragraph. The curiosity hook puts a question into their mind that needs closure: What? Why? How? Closure comes when they read on.
Done well, your reader can’t escape without reading to the end.
And now, the rest of the story
If you have read this far, you’re probably curious how the story ends. Here is what happened.
Neither the Captain nor the Second Officer aboard the Californian had interpreted the white skyrocket flashes as cause for alarm.
It was a matter of coincidence that they had been seen in the first place. For earlier that night – the night of April 14 – the Californian had reversed engines and parked as a precautionary measure, halted in her course by an immense field of oceanic ice.
That unscheduled stop in the middle of the sea had provided the Californian a ringside seat to an unimaginable drama.
The distant steamer had intended those rocket flares as distress signals, and the Californian – only nine miles away – might have rushed to her aid.
Except for one thing. The steamer was sending other distress calls by radio. And the Californian was well within range of those messages.
But her radio operator was asleep.
The Californian’s fledgling radio operator – fresh from training school – was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s Second Officer, from his vantage point on the bridge, unwittingly watched the sinking … of the Titanic.
As Paul Harvey famously said, now you know the rest of the story.
Now that your curiosity is satisfied, will you help satisfy mine? Let me know if you think curiosity hooks will help you engage your blog readers. Or, if you have others you’d add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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Mark Twain once said, “Clothes make the man. The naked have little or no influence.” This was in reference to the power of presenting yourself with style to stand out in the crowd.
It is apt for bloggers too. In the mass of content creators, brilliant insights still need a touch of flair to capture the attention and imagination of online readers. While form is no substitute for substance, your writing style IS what you are. It expresses your identity and makes a connection with the reader that enables influence and persuasion to happen.
Elements of blogging style
The focus of Web writing style is primarily on mechanics, which is the domain of guidelines found in the AP Style Guide for journalism, or the Yahoo Style Guide for content creators in the digital world. These are excellent references for developing consistent treatment of:
- Word choice and use of clichés, slang, jargon
- Search optimized content
- Formatting for Web readers
However, bloggers and content marketers also need to develop a personal style to stand out from the crowd. Your personal style flows from the voice and tone of your writing and how you structure your ideas. You won’t find your personal style in a guidebook. I would add to Twain’s observation by noting “the style makes the blogger – as long as it fits.” I would love to be able to wear skinny jeans, but alas, that style does not fit me.
Style is more than the clothes; it is how you wear them. So too, writing style is more than the mechanics. It is how you apply them.
In pursuit of personal style, bloggers might be tempted to accessorize writing with gaudy metaphors or splashy adjectives to create stylistic flair. Unfortunately, developing personal style is not that simple. Your style is organic to you, the writer.
While there is no clear formula for adding grace and elegance to a piece of writing, there are ways you can develop it. The best place to start is by studying devices used by graceful writers and practicing the fundamentals of clear, concise writing.
The long and short of blog writing
Short sentences are critical to successful writing for the Web. A readability formula developed by Rudolf Flesch finds the ideal sentence length for business writing is between 14-16 words. This is a good guideline for blogging. However, on occasion bloggers will want to exceed that limit to break monotony and build rhythm.
Here are some helpful guides to maintaining clarity when writing longer sentences:
Check for subject-verb agreement. This can become easily confused in longer sentences containing clauses and modifiers.
Use consistent treatment of the topic. The topic is what the sentence is about, comments on, and flows from. It is usually the subject. When the topic shifts to different places in sentences within the paragraph, it causes needless confusion. Keep them in a coherent sequence throughout.
Place information at the end of the sentence that will be developed in the next.
Use logical connectors to transition from sentences and into new paragraphs.
- Adding connectors: furthermore, and, also
- Opposing connectors: but, however
- Sequencing connectors: first, next, finally
- Magnifying connectors: even, in fact
- Concluding connectors: so, therefore
Structure coordinate series sentences so succeeding coordinates are parallel and longer than the one before it (see diagram below for an example)
The second sentence in this example moves the parallels from shorter to longer improving the rhythm and flow. Some writers would break the sentence into two rather than attempt a long, complex sentence in a blog post. If you do make this stylistic choice, I recommend using it sparingly.
Beware of mixed metaphors. A metaphor invites the reader to see a familiar thing in a new way. Similes do the same, less intensely, the like or as moderating the force of comparison. If you opt to use either, be sensitive to choosing words that carry the meaning through consistently. Watch out for “looking over” a problem in order to “handle” it correctly, and similar mixed metaphors.
Creating a personal blogging style
“Remember your primary goal as a writer is not to leave your imprint on the page,” offers Gary Provost in Make Your Words Work. “Your goal is to make the writing work. Make it do what it’s supposed to.” Many writers who write about writing say a style should be invisible. Rather than straining to make it happen, learn to write well and your style will emerge. Here are three ideas for creating your personal style:
- Master the mechanics. Learn the fundamentals of brevity and clarity as the foundation to making your writing do what it is supposed to.
- Read the masters. Make a habit of reading other writers – not only bloggers, but good copywriters and fiction writers. Studying how poets use language, structure and rhythm can give you new perspective on your writing.
- Let your personality emerge. As you continue to master the mechanics and read the masters, you will be inspired to express your voice in writing.
Bruce Lee was a model for self-expression. One of the greatest martial artists of all time, he was controversial because of his philosophy on style. He was first to merge several fighting styles into a unique hybrid.
He combined elements of Kung Fu, Jujitsu, grappling, boxing and other martial arts to create a new “style of no style” he named Jeet Kune Do. His vision was not for a new style of self-defense, but for physical self-expression.
When teaching students he told them, “Do not look for a successful personality and duplicate it. Express YOUR self.” Good advice for bloggers too.
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A guy asks his tailor, “Does this suit make me look fat?”
“No sir,” replies the tailor. “That would be your enormous gut.”
Like the guy in this story, you can’t dress up a piece of writing that is bulging with an excess of words. Wordiness is to writing as potato chips are to your waistline. One chip seems harmless enough, but one leads to another and in time you are bursting at the seams. The same is true for writing. One needless word here, one extra phrase there and soon your prose is bursting with overabundant verbiage. Like a fat guy in a little coat.
Why concern yourself over a few extra words? Because being concise is essential to effective writing for the Web. Readers scan. Every unnecessary word slows them down, discouraging them from reading on. Wordiness also gets in the way of your message. To be viewed as a thought leader you need to write lean.
In his book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace, Joseph Williams says, “To write clearly, we have to know not only how to manage the flow of our ideas but also how to prune and compress them.” This is accomplished by following two principles:
- Compress what you mean into the fewest words
- Don’t state what the reader can easily infer
In this post, third in a series on effective blogging, we focus on the first point. This infographic examines common culprits of wordiness.
Trimming the fat
Words are the most important tool a writer has. However, more is not better – especially when writing for the Web. Here are some considerations for trimming the fat from your writing:
1. Don’t mistake leanness for anorexia. You want to get rid of fat, not muscle.
2. Keep your writing tight enough so it fits the reader’s skimming without forcing a comprehension stop.
3. Use redundancies only when you want the reader to know you’ve repeated or doubled words to show emphasis.
4. Don’t hang on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful or clever.
5. Note the distance between subject and verb. The greater the distance, the higher is the propensity for wordiness. Bracket the adjectives, qualifiers and adverbs that modify a verb within the sentence and make sure each one serves a function.
William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well offers this final thought on brevity: “The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure where you are leading them – these are what weaken the sentence.”
[Related articles from this series: Do you make these critical thinking mistakes in your blog writing? and How good blogging is like ‘follow the leader.’]