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Can Readers Crack Your Code?

“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

— Seth Godin

I used to teach marketing and selling part-time at a local college. I often lectured on the power of storytelling in communications.

One day, one of my students offered an example to illustrate his understanding of what I was teaching. I realized how beautifully his example demonstrated an important point. In fact, his point was so well made because he drove it home using the very idea he was illustrating.

Let me put the story in context so you can understand.

In my Personal Selling class, we were discussing the natural human inclination to illogically and unconsciously assume that there is a parallel between a part and its whole — even when the two are totally unrelated or irrelevant to each other.

I call this tendency “UPA,” which stands for “unconscious paralleled assumption.” It means that people will unconsciously assume there's a parallel between one part and its whole, even if the two are totally different and unrelated.

For example, you visit a department store and notice that their shelves are dirty, cheap, disorganized, and unprofessional-looking. You will naturally assume, at an unconscious level, that the business behind it or the products it sells are the same.

Poor, Unprofessional, Cheap, and so on.

The psychology behind UPAs is simply this. We fear making bad decisions. It's just human nature. We have a tendency to seek out the negative in whatever it is we are considering so to ensure that the decisions we are making are good ones — or to justify our desire to procrastinate.

For instance, when we are contemplating an offer online, we'll likely skim the web to make sure the offer is legitimate. Is it a scam? Are there any reviews? Is the business trustworthy? Is there any catch? Anything contradictory or “off” in the slightest will deter us.

If something appears to be out of place for any reason (even if it's just a little thing like a typo, and goodness knows I'm guilty of making errors, too), we'll tend to refuse to buy, leave the site, or in the very least feel uncomfortable or uneasy.

I call this the “Ketchup Principle.” It's the fact that you will remember the ketchup stain on a salesperson's tie during a lunch meeting more than you will his impeccable sales presentation or appearance — let alone product or offer.

But appearances aside, UPAs, and especially poor ones, can also be the result of people not fully understanding the meaning of what is being communicated to them. We can certainly understand the message. But do we truly understand the meaning behind the message?

In other words, does the message mean anything to us specifically? Is there a meta-message (i.e., a subtle nuance, subtext, or indirect message, i.e., the message beyond the message) that contradicts the offer?

Too many websites describe the products they are selling but stop there. Users may understand what the content of the message, but they do not fully grasp what these products can do for them specifically.

Why? It's because the mind thinks in relative terms.

Humans have an overwhelming compulsion to compare and contrast almost everything we encounter. That's because the brain processes information by visualizing what it's being told and comparing the given information to something it already knows, can relate to, or understands.

Words are not messages. Words are only symbols used to encode a message, with the hope that the message will be decoded by the recipient in the way we intended. That's why our choice of words is so crucial.

Back to the student.

At the end of my lecture, he approaches me at the front of class, and pulls out a chair and places it beside my desk. He asks:

“Mr. Fortin, what's the difference between this chair and your desk?”

“One is to sit on and the other is to write on,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you're relating the difference rather than stating it.”

He was absolutely right. I was initially puzzled but realized his point. The difference is their function. I was merely relating the difference by comparing the function of the desk with the function of the chair. I was not directly stating what the difference was.

To further his point, he added:

“What's the difference between a tennis ball and a soccer ball? Not that one is small and the other is big, or that one is yellow and the other is black-and-white, which is what most people will say. The difference is their size or color.”

In fact, just like I was at first, when I first published this article, a reader rightfully emailed me with the following headscratcher:

“I read your latest article with great interest. I understand most of it, except for the point you were trying to make with the chair and table, as well as the point with the tennis ball and a soccer ball. Quite frankly, I've read it over and over again, but I simply don't get it. You seem to be saying that the difference is not their size, it's their size? This makes no sense to me, and whatever the point is that you're trying to make to me is less than obvious. I'm feeling cheated, like I've missed the joke that everyone's howling over. It's leaving me so uncomfortable and baffled that I'm moved to write this inquiry for further explanation.”

Here was my answer.

Don't feel cheated because you are, in reality, proving my student's point — and the point of this article. You're thinking in relative terms, which is how most people think. In fact, you just did it, yourself, when you said, “I'm feeling cheated like I've missed the joke that everyone's howling over.”

By the same token, you are also proving how uncomfortable people feel when they are confused, just as you are.

If I'm describing two different sizes (or colors), I'm not telling you what the difference is. Not directly, anyway. I'm merely implying what the difference is by describing two different characteristics. I'm showing or illustrating it rather than stating it directly.

In other words, saying “one is this” and “the other is that” is making a comparison. I'm describing how they are different rather than telling you what makes them different. I am therefore relating the difference by describing it through illustrations or examples.

If I said, “The difference is their size,” you have to think for a moment and picture each item to grasp the difference. But if I said “one is bigger than the other,” or “one is big and the other small,” your mind will instantly grasp what I'm saying.

Here's a really simplistic example. If I asked you what color is the sky, rather than telling me “blue” (which is the direct, logical answer), you could answer with “it's a light, powdery blue, which is the same color as my car.” In other words, you are relating it to something else.

We all thinking in relative terms.

And most of your prospects and visitors do, too.

This person was baffled, which is the point. If we're too direct or too literal in our marketing message, we might baffle our audience. Sure, they may understand what we're saying at some level, but they have to process the information to understand what it means to them.

Your copy must work to appeal to this including we all have to think in relative terms. Otherwise, you will end up confusing your audience, even if only slightly. And as the saying goes, the confused mind never buys.

We often write our copy in the way we understand. But we are never our market. So it's important to relate what we're trying to convey to our audience. Use comparisons, analogies, similes, examples, metaphors, and above all, stories.

Say you're in real estate. You want to convey the sheer size of a piece of land you're trying to sell. But if your copy only says “140 acres of land,” this is only a logical measurement — the mind may still not grasp the meaning or value of “140 acres.”

The reader may ask, “What's the size of 140 acres?” The mind thinks in pictures, not in numbers. It will try to compare 140 acres to a visual equivalent, which will be difficult. Either that or it will come up with the wrong one.

It will be easier for your reader to relate it to something it already knows and to which it can compare it. So if you added, “140 acres is like 200 football fields, back to back,” your readers will now understand because their minds can relate the measurement to something it knows.

Here's another example. Say you sell a hand cream. Instead of saying, “Skin-Be-Soft has a complex, lubricating hydra-dermic formula to reduce the symptoms of skin disorders like skin sensitivity, eczema, and psoriasis,” say:

“Skin-Be-Soft makes your skin silky smooth, and soothes nagging itchiness, lubricates unsightly scaling, and relieves pain, which are caused by eczema, psoriasis, and sensitive skin. Rub it on, and it's like wrapping your skin with a warm blanket that relieves, protects, and replenishes your skin.”

That's why it's important to use picture words, metaphors, analogies, and stories (which is why “storyselling,” work so well).

I call these UPWORDS (which stands for “Universal Picture Words or Relatable, Descriptive Sentences”). With the use of UPWORDS, people will understand and retain more. And of course, UPWORDS will also persuade visitors more effectively.

Say that you're selling a computer backup service. Through market research, you've discovered your audience is young couples who are newlyweds or new parents. To explain the main benefit of using a computer backup service, you can say this:

“This backup system will save you a lot of frustration and time if your computer ever malfunctions, which may lead to the loss of critical data you worked so hard to create and compile. It's like saving the only video of your wedding or your baby's first walk, when suddenly your computer dies right in the middle of moving the files. You've lost those precious recorded moments… Forever!

Are you encoding your message so that your audience can easily decode it? In the way they are supposed to? If not, then your readers' UPA will be one that will lead to disinterest, misunderstanding, confusion, or frustration.

They will unconsciously assume there is a parallel between the quality of your message and the quality of your product, let alone your customer service. They will think you don't get them and that there's a disconnect.

Online, everything you sell is intangible. So your message has a greater responsibility in replacing the tangibility that visitors want and usually get if they were to visit you or your place of business.

If your readers have to make assumptions on their own, their assumptions might not be the ones you want. So make sure the UPAs your visitors make are the ones you want them to make.

To confusion-proof your website or message, speak your market's language by using stories, analogies, metaphors, and vivid mental imagery they can easily and instantly relate to.

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Strategic marketing consultant Michel Fortin