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Monday, Oct. 6, 2008 at 9:44 am

Cause People to Realize the Truth, Rather than Just Telling it to Them

By Jeff Sexton
October 6th, 2008


If you haven’t already watched the short film I blogged about recently, watch that first!  You’ll get more out of this post, I won’t spoil the ending for you, and the video will leave you feeling proud to be a copywriter.

OK, having watched the video you know now that the “ad guy” changes the old man’s sign from:

“Have compassion, I am blind”


“Today is a beautiful day, and I can not see it.”

So let’s talk about the ad guy’s copy transformation.  In my mind he did 3 things perfectly:

1. He surprised readers with an unexpected reality hook

It was indeed a beautiful day, but it was also an unexpected observation to read on a panhandlers sign.  One normally expects a request or offer like, “Will work for food” or “Please help a disabled vet” or some such.  “Today is a beautiful” day is surprising, capturing the reader’s attention, causing him to wonder where this is heading.

2) He used his reality hook to create an advantageous emotional response.

Whether they wanted to or not, passers-by took at least half a second to confirm the truth of that statement – to mentally assent that, yes, today was indeed beautiful.  Think about how different that thought is from 99% of the pedestrian concerns most of us walk down the street with; how liberating – even for a half-second – to stop worrying about the next meeting or deadline and look up to see what a beautiful day it really is.

This is a crucial step, too, because, as discussed in the book Made to Stick, shifting people into an empathic or emotional state of mind is crucial to the success of charitable requests.  Psychological research shows that if you prime people to think analytically, they’ll give far less than if you primed them to think emotionally.  The “Today is a beautiful day” opening primed people to think emotionally.

3) He forced reader participation by requiring them to connect the dots.

Nowhere did the new sign actually say, “I’m blind.”   Readers had to draw that conclusion for themselves by reading “and I can’t see it” while connecting that with the context clues offered by the old man and his pan-handling.  This bit of reader engagement means that readers “see” the reality of the man’s blindness for themselves, without the typical internal push-back or cynicism generated when a marketing claim is shoved at a person.  This is an incredibly powerful writing technique explained by this Monday Morning Memo from Roy Williams.

Also note that the new sign avoided a hard sell by implying the request.  The ad man let the collection plate, combined with the reader’s realization of the man’s blindness, be the call to action.

Now, applying this to the web, I’d say there are 2 more, extremely important points to make:

4) Eliminating conversion flaws and increasing usability can only take you so far.

The ad guy didn’t try to make the collection plate bigger or more prominent.  Nor did he set up a card-swiping machine so people could donate via debit card.  Usability wasn’t the issue; persuasion was.  If your website optimization strategy only addresses usability flaws or general best-practice issues, you’re never going to achieve breakthrough performance for your website.  You have to address persuasive gaps as well.

5) It’s worth the money to pay a good copywriter what he’s worth.

The dramatic improvement in conversion caused by the new copy may have been fictional for the film, but it’s a recurrent reality on the web – at least for those companies who understand the value of persuasive copy.

Unfortunately, too many companies are willing to spend thousands to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a website redesign while balking at paying decent money for a top-notch copywriter.  Don’t be one of those companies.

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Comments (18)

  1. Saliva – You are in danger of having your henchman union card yanked. Dirt

  2. What an excellent post – when are you going to write that book?!

  3. I am so glad I watched that short film. I must admit it brought a tear to my eye. Absolutely wonderful post!!! Thanks you.

  4. Awesome follow up to a fantastic video! You’re right, copywriting truly can make or break an entire website. It builds the foundation of a website and its message to consumers.

  5. Few can de-construct and explain why things work. You are high up in that few. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us.

  6. Excellent analysis. Both the science elements on the site (usability, conversion) and the persuasion factors must be in sync for a super-duper response.

  7. One thing about the video: wouldn’t the blind man convert more if there was a strong call to action? I understand that this undermines the esthetic beauty of the single statement, but it might help readers into the right direction concerning a follow-up action. Or am I being greedy here? :)

  8. I spent a great deal of the film imagining what the new words on the sign must say. And to be honest, I was completely wrong.

    In the film it seemed like there was such an emphasis on the sound of the coins being dropped in. I figured that there was a ‘call to action’ that wasn’t a ‘hard call’ but more of an offer for people to help the blind man hear something.

    To Inge’s point – I think some call to action may have helped, but in the situation most people tune out the strong calls to action of beggars (right or wrong – it’s true). So the call still needed to be a soft one.

  9. Jeff, Great stuff man…

    You can feel the clarity… makes me want to start writing now. Nice discovery on the video too.

    ~ Shawn

  10. Reminds me of the quote, “when setting a mouse trap, always leave room for the mouse”. :o )

    The problem I find today is that people often optimize for the tool (Search Engine) not for the people at the other end. You have to understand the mouse in other to catch it, just knowing how to bait a mousetrap might not be enough.

  11. We used to describe it as allowing the prospect to close the circle rather than forcing the close for them. The psychology is that the conclusion you draw your self is deeper and more persuasive than the one that is drawn for you.

    Nice reminder of what works.

  12. [...] Cause People to Realize the Truth, Rather than Just Telling it to Them [...]

  13. [...] Cause People to Realize the Truth, Rather than Just Telling it to Them [...]

  14. [...] mutta koin tarpeelliseksi havainnollistaa sanojen merkitystä yksinkertaisen esimerkin avulla FutureNow:n artikkelia (englanniksi) [...]

  15. [...] Emotionamics at Work A very succinct article on our tendency to convince our viewers instead of seducing them emotionally… [...]

  16. The reality hook generates the emotion, and I think that’s the seller in this message. Everybody could see it was a beautiful day, even if it wasn’t, the sign would have still worked, but “and I cannot see it”, is the closer. I had to go watch the video again, really good!

  17. I think that it is much better when they realize the truth. Simply much better.

  18. Hmm I was desperate about watching this movie, but there is maybe the whole content, so I dont if I should watch it anymore :( but it seems to be interesting!

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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