“Often when I write I am trying to make words do the work of line and color. I have the painter’s sensitivity to light. Much … of my writing is verbal painting.”
- Elizabeth Bowen
Words act on two levels – the conscious and the subconscious. The technical writer is the master of the conscious. The poet, master of the subconscious. The successful copywriter, master of both.
Every carefully crafted word, phrase, or sentence performs two actions. It denotes. And it connotes. The denotation is the literal meaning. The connotation is how it makes you feel.
In the previous post in this three-part series on tone of voice in copywriting, we discussed how you shape tone with syntax, sentence patterns. In this final post, we examine diction, or word choice. We explore how to choose the words that populate those patterns and bring the verbal paintings to life, paintings that will evoke the desired reactions in our audiences.
Writing for the Conscious Mind
Communicate clearly. All copywriting must convey information. It sounds like such a simple task, yet miscommunications plague the world.
Speak in a language your audience understands. It matters not at all how beautiful your call-to-action is if your readers don’t understand what you are calling upon them to do. Your product’s features may be exceptional, but if you use overly technical vocabulary for a lay audience, you might as well write your copy in Klingon.
So what’s the first step in writing clearly for your audience? Know who your audience is! Identify who they are and think about their language, their communication styles.
Step two – precision. Avoid ambiguity. Some words are inherently vague and empty. Other words have the opposite problem; they mean too much. Vague words communicate very little. Words with multiple meanings may communicate the wrong thing.
Don’t tell people your company provides “solutions”. What kind of bullshit word is “solutions”? It’s an empty phrase. You might as well draw scribbles on the page in crayon in lieu of words. Tell people exactly what your company does.
Take a sentence like this, “Do you want a brand that enflames your passions?” Well, I don’t know. Do you mean it’s going to piss me off or make my nipples hard? You might know what you mean. Don’t assume your audience does.
Read every line carefully, looking out for multiple meanings, and rewrite those that might be misunderstood.
P.S. – If your audience will know what you mean, but a negative interpretation will also pop into their minds, lose the phrase! Don’t become the butt of a joke. Customers won’t hesitate to laugh at you and kick you in the shins while you’re down.
Writing for the Subconscious Mind
Pull on heart strings. Excite. Worry. Soothe. Plant ideas in your readers’ minds … without letting your reader even know they have been influenced.
Copywriting is PsyOps. In the battle for marketshare, win the war with psychological copywriting tactics. Personally I find these tactics the most fun part of copywriting.
The words you choose create feelings within your readers. Some of these feelings are of the emotional sort – happiness, energy, calm. Others are notions – this brand is scientific, this brand has history, this brand is a leader, etc.
To help you remember these PsyOps tactics, I’ve boiled them into a useful acronym: PSY.
P – Personality
S – Sound
Y – The ‘You’ Factor
Brands possess personalities, and these personalities strongly influence the way that consumers perceive brands and the kinds of relationships they form with them.
How do you want consumers to view your brand? As the girl next door? A scientific expert? Youthful? A mature professional? Born from French heritage? An athlete? A gourmet chef? A go-getter? A mystic? No nonsense? A grandmother? Aristocratic? A man of the people?
Choose words that embody these personalities. A scientist will speak with clear, objective statements with words like ‘observed’, ‘measured’, ‘results’. A scientist is also allowed to weave in more technical vocabulary than you would find in the everyday register of the common man. Use Latin- and Greek-derived terms, polysyllabic words.
A youthful brand can be evoked with a mixture of plain English and slang.
A no-nonsense brand – heavy on simple verbs and nouns, light on adjectives.
Even sounds have personalities. If you map out words with similar meanings, you will find that they cluster around certain sounds, even factoring out shared origins.
For example “j” sounds tend to be more dynamic and aggressive – “jab”, “joust”, “jagged”. Note that “j” is formed with a relatively forceful articulation in the mouth. Open vowels tend to be used for words that imply openness, vastness, roundness – “hope”, “holy”, “hollow”, “moon”. (For more explanation and examples, see our page on sound in copywriting.)
Choose sounds that either reflect your brand’s personality or create a desired effect in the reader.
The ‘You’ Factor
Connect with your reader. Get the readers thinking about things that matter to them and relate these to your brand. The easiest way to do this is with words like “you”, “your” and “yours”.
Your children are the most important thing in your life.
Do you wish you could lose a few extra pounds?
What does your dream wedding look like?
People are selfish. There’s no better way to pique their interest than to get them thinking about themselves.
Still Waters Run Deep
On the surface your writing should be crystal clear. Under the surface, your word choices should be rich with PsyOps tactics. Embody a specific brand personality. Use sounds to convey feelings. And use the ‘you’ factor to make your brand relevant to the reader.
See our post on copywriting word banks for a useful way to keep your brand’s tone of voice consistent and to speed up extensive copywriting projects.
Did you miss the first two installments in this series on copywriting tone of voice? Read them here: