I first taught this technique in 1998. While there have been tons of improvements since then, today I still see copy on so many websites, sales letters, or emails using a language that only the person who wrote them understands.
The bottom line is, most marketers and copywriters still seem to ignore the most important part of their sales copy…
… Their readers.
Abraham Maslow once commented, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Abraham Maslow may have been a psychologist, but he probably knew more about copywriting and particularly selling than what most people cared to admit.
Even now, most of the copy I critique disobey this important rule the most. Their sales message doesn’t communicate with their readers, particularly at their level. Now, I’m not talking about a socioeconomic or educational level. I’m talking about the level at which they understand and, above all, make buying decisions.
They fail to use what I call “upwords.” It’s an acronym that means…
“Universal Picture Words Or Relatable, Descriptive Sentences.”
Upwords are words that paint vivid pictures in the mind, or expressions that describe an idea to which the mind of your reader (or prospect) can quickly and easily relate to.
Here’s an example. Several years ago, I took a media communications course in which I discovered an interesting example of the way the mind works. As part of a given lesson, a videotape was shown of a televised newscast during which a journalist was about to give a live report on a large, devastating forest fire.
The news anchor in the television newsroom said: “We now take you to reporter Sally Smith, who’s in the station’s helicopter flying above the scene of the fire.”
He then turned around to face the background screen, which showed a live bird’s-eye view of the raging fire. Asked the anchorman: “Tell us, Sally, how big is the fire?”
In a voice partially drowned by the whizzing sound of helicopter blades, Sally offered this interesting insight: “John, the forest fire so big, it’s covering well over 140 acres of land — now that’s about 200 football fields back-to-back for you and me.”
Why did she do this? It’s because people tend to think in pictures, not in words and certainly not in numbers — unless, of course, it is told to do exactly that.
The mind hates confusion.
It will naturally translate words or phrases into something it can refer back to, something it already knows, often rapidly and unconsciously, in order to understand what it is told.
If the reporter didn’t give a visual equivalent to 140 acres, the audience — unless the target market is comprised of lad surveyors — would have either ignored and skipped over this piece of information, or attempted to visualize what was being said.
For instance, if I told you to think of a garbage can, you’re not going to think of the word “garbage can” or the letters “G,” “A,” “R,” “B,” “A,” “G,” “E,” etc. If I asked you to think of a garbage can your mind will automatically visualize some sort of garbage can.
It is Mark Twain who once said, “Numbers don’t stick in the mind; pictures do.”
Microsoft and MacIntosh dominate the marketplace in operating systems because, rather than typing some elaborate command for your computer to execute, you can simply use your mouse, point to an icon that represents the command or program, and click.
Icons represent commands, which, when clicked on, are translated into programs (i.e., codes or computer languages) that the computer can understand and execute.
In the same way, the mind works very much like a computer does.
People who know little about computers will likely have a difficult time understanding the various written commands, scripts, and codes that the computer needs to process. But on the other hand, most of us can easily identify the icons that symbolize them.
Similarly, the brain instantly translates the information it receives into something it can easily understand and act upon — something it already knows and can easily refer to.
Albeit a quick one, there is always a translation process going on.
As we write our copy for our audiences, we must be aware of that. We must be aware of how our readers will “decode” the message we are trying to communicate — hopefully, they will decode it in the way we intended when we “encoded” it in the first place.
Therefore, the challenge facing most marketers is to ensure that their copy is encoded in the right way — so that it communicates effectively to its audience, especially when getting that message and its benefits across is at the heart of making profitable sales.
The big test, therefore, is to put ourselves in our reader’s shoes.
It is important to communicate using words, phrases, and a language that the vast majority of people in your target market can easily understand and appreciate.
So, the more you use upwords in your copy, the more your reader will not only be able to visualize and grasp the message you’re trying to convey, but also appreciate that message at a deeper, more intimate, and more visceral level.
And that is the level I was referring to, earlier.
Upwords are words and phrases that help messages to be easily read, understood and interpreted by the majority of the people to whom the message is targeted, like with the use of mental imagery, examples, analogies, metaphors, picture words, etc.
For example, in my early career I specialized in copy for cosmetic surgeons. And a challenge among doctors is the fact that people will call for a quote over the phone when a surgeon needs to see the patient beforehand to make an assessment.
But obviously, cosmetic surgery is an uncommon process. People don’t understand why doctors can’t simply give out quotes over the phone. Some even get upset about it.
As a way to work around this problem, I tell doctors to use a more common approach, such as cosmetic dentistry for example, as an analogy. Why? It’s because, unlike cosmetic surgery, most people have had their teeth done at some point.
That way, their brains have something they can remember, picture, refer back to, and relate with. To that end, I tell doctors to say this, when asked for a quote over the phone:
“Just like a dentist, I can’t give an estimate over the phone without any X-rays of your teeth” or “without the knowledge of how many cavities you really have.”
Marketers are certainly in a similar position.
Many tend to communicate in a language that only a few understand. If you’re a programmer selling your services to business owners, and your copy is laced with technical jargon that only geeks will understand, you will obviously do very poorly.
Speak their language! This is a step beyond using simple industry buzzwords and niche-related jargon your audience is used to and comfortable with. You should also mold your message in a way that it can be easily understood by your target market.
If your market consists of artists, use art examples. If it’s comprised of managers, use business analogies. If it’s made up of fishing aficionados, use fishing metaphors. For example, say you sell customer service consulting to florists. You can then say:
“Your clients are like fresh-cut roses; they need to be handled efficiently. But if handled improperly, they can prick and hurt your business, or simply wilt away.”
Here’s a recent example. One website I critiqued sold skincare lotion. They called it “microdermabrasion.” It’s a facial scrub that helps to smooth away wrinkles.
But the problem is, she used the term “microdermabrasion.” But no one understood that. Sure, the term has been bandied about among dermatologists and beauty salons. And most people may have heard it before. But most of them don’t really know what it means. Plus, the only benefit mentioned was “skin regeneration.” What the heck is that?
So after some investigation, I realized that her lotion offers three main benefits.
- It reduces the appearance of wrinkles,
- It comes in a easy-to-use homecare kit,
- And it’s gentle on skin, or “pH balanced.”
But these are not benefits let alone ideas her target market can easily appreciate. Again, they may understand what these are, and they likely understand what they mean. But they don’t fully understand what those benefits mean at an intimate level.
So, I told her to change it to:
“Reverse the aging process and give your skin a youthful radiance with our non-acidic, non-greasy facelift in a jar! Just imagine… no inconvenient clinics, no risks associated with harsh chemicals peels or injections, and no costly doctors or painful surgeries. Get beautiful skin in hours in the comfort of your own home! It’s like getting the power of a sandblaster applied with the gentleness of velvet glove!”
There are many more ways of applying upwords to your sales copy. Here are some brief examples of how to mold your message in order to communicate more effectively…
1) Repetitious Words
As the adage goes, “Repetition is the parent of learning.”
Repetition aids comprehension and increases retention, especially of complex or critical ideas. But the objective is not to repeat the same words over and over. It’s to use different examples to illustrate your point and drive the idea home.
To that end, substitute certain words with synonyms and add new pieces of information each time the idea is repeated. Here’s an example to show you. In order to drive the idea that privacy policies on a website help to increase sales, it can be repeated with:
- “Privacy policies promote purchases,”
- “Privacy statements increase sales,”
- “Confidentiality is a key to online success,”
2) Emotional Words
Words are not messages in themselves. They are symbols. They are chosen in order to symbolize the message we intend to say and hopefully get others to understand.
Different words mean different things to different people. As such, they can be interpreted differently. While several words can be used to communicate a single message, your choice of words is the most important decision you will ever make.
Words can actually alter the impact of your message. For example:
- Instead of “cost,” say “investment,”
- Instead of beautiful “teeth,” say beautiful “smiles,”
- Instead of “skinny,” say “slim” or “slender,”
- Instead of “products” or “services,” say “solutions,”
- Instead of “cost-effective,” say “return on investment,”
- And instead of “house,” say “home.”
3) Positive Words
As my friend and copywriter, Rachel McAlpine, often says, “Avoid using negative words — say what it is, not what it isn’t.” I agree. Rachel is absolutely right on the money.
Speaking of cosmetic surgery, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon himself who also wrote the bestseller “Psycho-Cybernetics,” states that the brain is a goal-seeking organ.
He said our brains need a goal in order to function.
For example, if I told you to not think of a white carnation, you will have hard time since your brain needs a goal. It will naturally picture what it is supposed to avoid. The mind needs a reference point and will tend to think about what it is being suggested.
On the other hand, if I asked you to think of a pink carnation instead of a white one, you will think of a pink carnation. (And you won’t think of a white one!) I gave your mind a goal rather than taking one away from it. I replaced it, in other words.
By stating what something isn’t can be counterproductive since it is still directing the mind, albeit in the opposite way. If I told you most dental work is painless, you’ll still focus on “pain” in the word “painless,” even though painless has a positive meaning.
Here are some examples of using positive words:
- Instead of saying “inexpensive,” say “economical,”
- Instead of “this procedure is virtually painless,” say “there’s little discomfort,”
- And instead of “this software is error-free,” say “consistent” or “stable.”
Also, one of the most negative words we use is the word “but.”
“Buts” can turn any message, which in essence may be positive, into a negative. Plus, a statement followed by the word “but” can subtly communicate that what was said up to that point was a lie or unimportant, and what follows is the truth or the real message.
Remember when a former girlfriend or boyfriend dumped you? They probably said: “You’re really nice and I like going out with you, but…” I’m sure you know the rest.
Consequently, leave the “but” out. Rather, use “and” and then focus on the positive.
For example, say you’re a website designer. One day, a client looking for a complete site redesign asks you for a quote. You also realize that they are cost-conscious.
So instead of saying, “It’s a great website but expensive,” say “it’s a great website and worth every penny.” Instead of, “it’s a large website but it’s going to take at least a month,” say “it’s a large website and it will only take thirty days to get it up and running.”
Can you see the difference?
We are all different. We all come from different backgrounds. We each have a unique education, experience, and environment. They all condition our thinking.
So use analogies, metaphors, and imagery in your copy that will make your message easier to grasp by the majority of your market’s set of circumstances.
As Jack Trout once said…
“A word is worth a thousand pictures.”