Yesterday, I wrote about how to read the mind of your target audience, to really get to know them before writing any copy to try to sell them. Today, I want to talk even more about how people think…
And how to use that knowledge in your copywriting.
I was just listening to the audio book Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist whose early work was on heuristics in judgment and decision making.
And, because the death knell of copy is to use words that your audience doesn’t understand, let’s make sure you know what the heck “heuristics in judgment and decision making means.”
Heuristics are mental shortcuts. They’re rules that we apply to interpreting a certain situation. They’re not always accurate, but they’re accurate enough for our purposes.
Biases and prejudices fall under heuristics. These are negative heuristics…
For a good example, the law enforcement heuristic that sees black men as disproportionately more likely to be dangerous criminals has been causing all sorts of a ruckus across the US recently — most recently with the situation in Baltimore. And rightly so — when a mental shortcut is wrong, it can be hurtful. Even more so when the mental shortcut may lead to the use of deadly force.
Are some black men dangerous criminals? Absolutely. Men and women of all races, colors, creeds, etc., can be dangerous criminals. But when your brain develops a shortcut that says “black men are dangerous criminals,” you risk applying that shortcut to peaceful, law-abiding citizens just because some superficial detail matches your mental shortcut.
I risk diving too far a political rabbit hole, which I generally try to avoid here. So I’ll remind myself that we’re talking about heuristics and how our brains work, and move on…
There are also positive heuristics…
These are rules that help us navigate everyday life more successfully, often doing things on “autopilot” that seem like they shouldn’t.
For example, think of a stop sign.
You have a mental shortcut that says you should stop your car (or bike, or motorcycle, or hovercraft…) at a stop sign. As you stop, you should look to your left, your right, then your left, for any approaching traffic. (At least here in the US — I imagine in countries where you drive on the left side of the road, you’re supposed to look right, left, right.) And then, once you see the way is clear, you proceed.
That’s a heuristic — a mental shortcut — for how to drive through an intersection with a stop sign. And I’ll bet you didn’t think it through the last 10 times it happened.
It’s become so ingrained in your behavior, that it’s become automatic.
It helps you navigate the world successfully. It helps you drive through who-knows-how-many stop-sign intersections in a year, without getting in an accident.
In fact, there are a ton of different types of these mental shortcuts…
And each can be helpful to you as you — in your copy — lead your reader toward the sale…
— The Availability Heuristic. When an idea can easily be brought to mind, it’s thought to be common or true. The easier it is to bring it to mind, the more likely it is that you’re overestimating its likelihood. Tying your product or service to commonly-held beliefs is a great way to tap into this.
— The Representativeness Heuristic. We believe a certain person or thing that fits in a category will behave like other persons or things that we know to fit in the category. This is the basis of a lot of prejudice, but it can also be positive. For example, if you wanted to start a new Swiss watch company, you’d benefit from the positive reputation of other Swiss watch companies.
— The Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic. When people are given an anchor, it is hard for them to adjust their opinion away from the anchor. This is really common in building value of a package in a sales letter — you show them how all the bonuses they’re going to get are worth $10,000, they’ll assume you’re going to charge at least half of that until you price drop to $999.
— The Affect Heuristic. People will use momentary emotional feelings to make decisions about things that are only loosely related. When you hear about fear and greed promotions, they’re definitely using the affect heuristic. For example, you might make a frightening prediction, then offer a solution or protection should that come true.
There are a ton more heuristics, and the Wikipedia page on heuristics in judgment and decision making is a great start to learn more.
Here’s what you really need to understand about heuristics…
Human beings are not primarily logical. Nor are they primarily emotional. They’re both, at different times.
There’s the famous teaching that to sell, you need to lead with emotion and follow it up with logic.
This plays into heuristics perfectly.
*** And let me take an important time-out here, to provide the all-important disclaimer. This is pretty powerful stuff. And if you’re going to use it to sell, you better damn well make sure you’re selling something that you honestly believe is going to bring about a positive result in the person’s life. If you’re using this deep understanding of human decision making to manipulate people into making bad decisions for themselves, you’re the scum of the earth and you deserve to be eaten alive by maggots. Follow the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. End disclaimer.
So… How might you use heuristics? Well, let’s say you want to tap into a recent news story of interest to your reader. For example, the Fed’s pending decision to raise interest rates. If your audience is reading a lot about that, it taps into the availability heuristic. They’re familiar with it, so they’re automatically going to resonate more with them.
Then, you might talk about a famous investor as one person who is predicting economic catastrophe when interest rates rise. They’re going to extrapolate that to be an opinion held by other famous investors, using the representativeness heuristic.
Then you might cite a media source on the likelihood that the Fed will raise rates in September, which provides an anchor that leaves the reader thinking this is going to happen soon, if not in September.
And finally, you might share a scary quote about what’s going to happen when interest rates rise, to stoke a little healthy fight or flight response. This taps the affect heuristic, so they’re looking for something to ease their tension.
At this point, you’ve started your sales message in a very emotional way, tapping these heuristics that are common to how all humans process information coming in through their senses.
From this point, you have to make the logical connection that if this prediction is true… That if the Fed raises interest rates in or around September and it’s as bad as some are predicting… That investors are going to want to have their portfolio in order before this happens… And you’ve identified an effective way to protect your wealth for when this happens.
The longer you’re in any one market, the more you’ll recognize how the universal heuristics line up with the particulars of your market…
Which actually lines up perfectly with the later work of Kahneman, and some of what he talks about in Thinking Fast and Slow.
Through time, you can actually refine your heuristics — your mental shortcuts — to be more accurate.
This doesn’t come with age. There are all sorts of people who have stubbornly held wrong opinions to ripe old ages…
It comes with experience and integrating feedback.
Which is why a direct response copywriter with decades of experience in an industry can instantly see what’s right and wrong with the copy of a relative novice.
Expert copywriters — experts in any industry — aren’t necessarily more rational than novices. Rather, they just have better-refined heuristics and decision-making systems.
They’ve spent endless hours looking at what’s accurate, and what’s not.
This is what happens when you really put in the work to doing your “10,000 hours.”
A quick personal story…
Sometime in my early teens, I decided I wanted to learn bass guitar. The bad news was, it coincided with my biggest trouble-making period.
And so, I didn’t get the bass guitar. Not for my birthday. Not for Christmas. Not for years.
Then, as I started to shape up, I eventually DID get the bass guitar.
But I believe I missed a crucial window.
There was a window of time — during junior high and high school — that I spent a ton of time at home, after school.
That’s time I could have spent at home, practicing that bass until my fingers bled.
By the time I got the bass, late in my high school years, all that practice time was about to be gone.
I was headed off to college, and the scheduling wasn’t the same at all.
What I’ve found is that most great guitar players — along with many other great instrumentalists — first picked up their instrument by their early teens. And they spent a huge amount of that after-school time practicing.
There’s seldom another period in someone’s life where they’ll have that much time to block off.
I believe that you can override it based on age. For example, I started learning marketing in my early 20s, after college.
But I don’t think you can totally override the practice time. Shorten it, maybe. But it takes time and repetition to make conscious thoughts and behaviors into heuristics — the subconscious and unconscious mental shortcuts.
Here’s how to apply this to your copywriting career…
First, if you want to get great at copywriting, you need to put in the time, the work, and the practice — starting now. My daily lessons are a good start. My 1% improvement per week philosophy (that I got from Gary Bencivenga) is very much in line with this.
Second, remember that you, too, are subject to the influence of heuristics. Some of this stuff you’ll think you’re good at. Some you’ll think you’re bad at. Often, you’ll be wrong. You need other people who know — and the market — to give you feedback so you can improve your accuracy of judgment of yourself and your copy.
Third, it’s always smart — and especially early on — to have an expert at your side. Maybe this is a client, or a mentor, or someone else who has honed their copy heuristics to know what works and what doesn’t. Who doesn’t have to do the hard work of figuring it out every time — who through practice and experience has made what works in copy an automatic understanding.
In reference to the third, remember that I offer copy review services. I’ll apply my first decade of immersive experience in direct response — and writing winning controls and banner sales letters — to showing you what you’re doing right and wrong in your copy.
I’ll review your copy for up to an hour, and then get on the phone with you for up to an hour. And by the time you’re done, not only will you have copy more likely to be a big winner for you… I will have also subtly “installed” some of my heuristics and copywriting mental shortcuts into you, to benefit you for the rest of your career.
The $500 is a paltry fee, considering the immediate and long-term impact.
If you’re interested, simply email Roy@RoyFurr.com and I’ll give you a link to pre-pay, along with a questionnaire to submit with your copy.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets
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