Words matter…

When it comes to writing copy, creating a masterpiece (we should be so lucky, eh?) means leveraging a mixture of experience, skill and a well-packed toolbox. For marketers, the latter will be packed with the words needed to draw the reader or target in. The skill comes in using them effectively — to achieve the goal.

Luckily for marketers, patterns have emerged as a result of years of research into the power of certain words on our thought processes. These “key” words act on a part of our brain that light-heartedly is referred to as the ‘lizard brain’. If we think of the brain having three separate sections, two new and one old, the lizard brain is the old part. Its reactions, if any, are limited to the following…attack, eat, run away or mate. In today’s world where threats to survival are somewhat reduced the lizard brain tends to focus on relationships. And it is inclined to do this by making snap judgements.

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The following 6 words are known to play directly to the lizard brain, triggering our subconscious, impulsive instincts. This happens almost instantaneously.

  1. You. Everyone cares about him- or herself. Think of the cocktail party effect identified by Colin Cherry. Our brains have the ability to immediately detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli. This means hearing your own name will immediately cause the lizard brain to focus its attention on that source. It’s the same visually, the word ‘you’, when read, will have an instant filtered effect on the lizard brain. So as a marketer, play to this innate weakness and make it about the reader. Research by Carmody and Lewis (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1647299/) shows that seeing our own name in print is intrinsically tied to our self-perception, identity feelings of worthiness. Thus it comes as no surprise that text referring directly to the consumer will cause people to feel more engaged and trusting of the copy in question.
  2. Free. Arguably the most powerful four letters in marketing. People love free stuff so much they have been shown to make choices they wouldn’t usually make when they see it. Dan Ariely showed, in his book ‘Predictably Irrational’ that the word ‘free’, when studied in terms of concrete values, has extraordinary power.  In his study, people had to choose between a 1 cent Hershey Kiss or a 15 cent Lindt Truffle (half its normal value). 73% went for the truffle as a deal is a deal, right? Leaving the remaining 27% (that’s fast maths…) stuck on the Kiss.  Yet, in the second part of the study, each of the goodies dropped value by 1 cent, making the Hershey Kiss FREE, and, guess what, 69% chose the it. A deal’s a deal but a steal’s a steal. The lizard brain has a natural inclination for low-hanging fruit.
  3. New. This seems strange as, on the whole, we humans are creatures of habit and don’t like change. Neuroimaging has shown that we respond more favourably to brands we recognise. Yet, it’s also known by neuroscientists that novelty plays an important role in activating the reward centres in our brain which results in lots of dopamine (the happy hormone) being released and thus causing a mood boost.  A word of warning, you’ve got to play the “new” card carefully to get the best of both worlds. To keep the brain thinking it’s safe, you must make sure your brand is portrayed as stable, thus building a trusting relationship with your customers. However, to keep the dopamine levels high, focus on stressing new products and features.  At the end of the day, no one likes a stagnant offering.
  4. Instantly. In this day and age, everything we want, we want now. While greed isn’t the most attractive trait (hence the deadly in 7 deadly sins) it works in the marketer’s favour. The midbrain activity in the reward centres is stirred up once again with greed, causing those dopamine levels to soar. The promise of an instant reward has been studied in drug addiction, showing that when an addict is told they will be given the desired narcotic immediately, half the rush gained from the drug is activated in dopamine-heavy brain areas before the drug is even introduced into the body. As marketers, service is the drug.
  5. Guarantee. The feeling of safeness and protection the word ‘guarantee’ brings causes the parts of the brain involved in feelings of anxiety (mainly the amygdala) to decrease its activity. Less adrenaline is released which calms the body. Now we have our cool, calm customer; next?
  6. Proven. The last but by no means the least. Evidence is key, Bold claims with no back up are a recipe for disaster in a world full of sceptical customers. Intelligent people don’t want to be mugged by shabby statements. Prove a product’s worth and you will reap the benefits of customer interest and trust. If you’ve got the Case Studies, use them. But exaggerate at your own risk.

So, there we have it; 6 lizard brain words in 34 lizard letters for marketing lizards to exploit. As Orwell didn’t quite remark in Animal Farm: ‘all words are equal but some are more equal than others’. He also didn’t quite say “the only good marketer is a dead one.” But he might have!

As Seth Godin puts it: “The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival.” So take advantage of, yet respect, the power of words, written or spoken, on the ancient parts of your brain’s cytoarchitecture. And be careful to put these words in a context that is suitable for your business or clients or the activation of the lizard brain may have an effect opposite to the one you’re looking for.

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