Choose your words carefully

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Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer, Wilde Agency
Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer, Wilde Agency

In copywriting, as in Scrabble, some words are worth more than others.

Whether you're writing an email, banner ad, print ad, letter, postcard, art card, radio spot, brochure or tweet, the words you choose can make all the difference.

Some words have the scientifically documented power to attract the human eye; others, the tested power to lift sales. Others still have the proven ability to make what you're writing appear to be more truthful.

You can imagine the impact this can have on response rates and return on investment.

Consider these examples:

Robert Levine, in his book “The Power of Persuasion,” cites certain studies that demonstrate how the words “easy,” “quick” and “improved” can all increase product sales. Think about whether any of them can be attributed to your product or service.

Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational,” devotes an entire chapter to the pulling power of the word “free” — an age-old favorite among direct marketers.  Ariely says: “‘Free' gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is.” People, concludes Ariely, find the word to be “irresistible,” and so they act.

• Two University of Georgia professors, Velma Zahirovic-Herbert and Swarn Chatterjee, studied the effect of street names on house prices and found that any street with the word “country” in it adds 4.2% to the value of the house. Those with “country club” in their names add an additional 5.1%. This is with all other factors, for example, community amenities, being equal. People will actually pay more for a house that simply sounds as if it's in a prestigious location. This is good insight into how people behave, especially if you happen to be naming a product or service.

• Numerous eye-tracking studies show that the human eye naturally goes to words promising news — words such as “introducing,” “announcing,” “new” and “now.” I call them “eye magnet words” because of their ability to attract readership, and I always try to use them in prominent pieces of real estate such as subject lines or envelope teasers to draw the reader in.

• Social scientists have found that losses can be twice as psychologically powerful as gains. Put another way, avoiding pain can be a more powerful motivator than achieving pleasure. So, how can this affect your word choice? You'll get more response advising someone “don't miss” rather than telling them to “take advantage.”

• In his book “Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive,” Dr. Robert Cialdini writes about an infomercial copywriter named Colleen Szot. Szot changed her spot's traditional call to action from “Operators are waiting, please call now” to “If operators are busy, please call again.” This three-word change, according to Cialdini, caused sales to “skyrocket.” Why? The inference is that many people are already calling, which leads viewers to feel like they don't want to be the ones to miss out on a hot product.

Matthew McGlone, a University of Texas psychologist, conducted research showing that phrases that rhyme are actually judged more accurate and truthful than non-rhyming phrases that convey the same information. Think about the implication this has for taglines like “Nationwide is on your side” and “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Think about the implication it can have for your company.

The truth is, all words are not created equal, and as a direct marketer you can give yourself a definite advantage when you select certain ones. Remember, when you want to increase readership and response, it's not enough to say what you need to say. Whether it's attention or dollars you're after, you have to say it in the way that makes them pay. How's that for a rhyming phrase, Mr. McGlone?

Nancy Harhut is chief creative officer at Wilde Agency.

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