How to use language to sell

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Over the years I’ve become more and more convinced that my high school English teachers (and yours too, probably) were dead wrong.

They didn’t know squat-diddly about language.  Oh, they may have known how to diagram a sentence and they could’ve told you how to write an essay, but they did not know how to use language.

Huh?  English teachers don’t know how to use language?  Nope.  They don’t.  Now before you go getting your past particples in a knot, let me ask you something:

What is language for?

The short answer:  language is for the sole purpose of communicating concepts.  And nowhere is this more important than in sales.  (That’s why direct response copywriting has always been, and will continue to be, so important.)

Language is not for the purpose of purist punctuation or gentlemanly grammar.  It’s for the purpose of getting ideas across.  If language depended solely on grammar, English wouldn’t have changed so much or so often as it has since it was first spoken.(Did you know that English contains words from several other languages – it also includes slang?  it’s true…)

Language is developed by people for people. (To be sure, so was government, but it ain’t that way no more…)  But I digress.  Back to the point.  Which is that language really works only when it’s communicating effectively.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, people think in images, not in words.  Images evoke emotions.  Emotions provoke actions.  The only reason anyone ever writes anything is to trigger that chain of events.  Even if a piece of writing is simply a record, it will eventually trigger the a reaction within anyone who reads it.

When it comes to direct response copywriting we acknowledge that.  We acknowledge that we want to trigger a reaction.  We want our reader to take action, but not just any action, a specific action.  So we craft our writing to include words and phrases that communicate ideas that are carefully designed to evoke specific emotions, and in turn, provoke specific actions.

Let me illustrate: take the words below and say them out loud to yourself and pause after each to see how they make you feel:

  • slimy
  • greasy
  • mucus

If you’re a ‘normal’ person, chances are that how you feel can be summed up in one (English?) word:  ‘Eeew’!  or if you prefer ‘Yuck’! (B.T.W. ‘yuck’ appears in the Webster dictionary as: Yuck – interjection: —used to express rejection or disgust.  ‘Eeew’ doesn’t – as yet.  However it does articulate an emotion very clearly, don’t you think?)

Now tell me this:  what images came to mind when you spoke those words aloud?  Were they images that were unpleasant?  How did it make you feel inside?  Did you feel at all sick, disgusted, or repulsed?

Here’s where I’m going with this.  If you want to communicate, especially if you want to sell something, you have to know how to use language rather than grammar. I’m not saying that writing as if you’re an illiterate, uneducated fool is okay.  Far from it.  But what I am saying is that you need to concentrate more on how what you write makes people feel, than on whether your grammar is perfect.

Essentially, good writing causes people to feel certain things and do certain things. It works on the principle of understanding what basic emotions your reader is already feeling and how they already react to these emotions.  That allows you to tap into your reader’s mind and make a connection.

By understanding that Moms will instinctively  fight to protect their children, you already know what the reaction will be when a Mom is faced with something endangering her children.

By understanding that a purchaser for a company is anxious about their job security, you already know that their reaction will be when faced with a choice between a safe, tested, adequate option and a new, unproven option that promises better results but carries some risk.

Once you understand the inner emotions of your target audience, you can then begin to use language effectively.

Why do you think story telling is so powerful?  Because it allows the reader to experience feelings and to connect emotionally with something or someone outside themselves.  It’s the same process as when you meet someone with whom you instinctively ‘click’.  We often describe this by saying ‘we speak the same language’.

When it comes to direct response writing, this concept is absolutely key.

Good direct response copywriters are essentially good salespeople rather than only being good writers.  I’m sure you’ve been in situations before where you’ve been ‘sold’ by a good sales person and ‘unsold’ by an amateurish sales person.  It’s interesting to note that the ‘good’ sales person will always listen before they speak.  They listen in order to pick up clues about what it is that you really want or need so that they can say the things that are relevant to what you’re looking for. They also listen to how you communicate so that they can reflect your style creating an immediate comfort level for you so that you can ‘hear’ what they’re saying instead of being distracted by your discomfort with a stranger.

In a face-to-face sales situation, this is easier to do than it is in a direct mail.  The sales person gets immediate feedback and can monitor body language and adjust accordingly.  When you’re writing your sales-pitch, you have to assess these things ahead of time.  This is why direct response copywriters have to do so much research about their target audience before they begin writing.

Once you are sure that you understand your target reader,  you can use the kind of language that mirrors their communication style.  For instance, if you’re writing to a trucker, you’d use language truckers use everyday.  If you’re writing to school teachers, the language would be significantly different.  With a trucker, you would probably use trucker style slang.  With a school teacher, you’d probably avoid slang altogether.

The bottom line is this: to be effective as a direct response copywriter, it’s essential to form a connection with the reader.  To form a connection, you have to have something in common with them.  To have something in common with them, you have to understand them – understand the world they live in and how they live and then use language in such a way as to perfectly articulate this understanding.

Here’s an interesting exercise:  write one paragraph selling a cordless telephone to a trucker.  Then re-write the paragraph for a teacher.  See what you come up with.  If you like, you can send this to me for a complementary critique.

Happy writing!

Jackie Cooper

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