Can Readers Crack Your Code?

I used to teach marketing and selling part-time at a local college. One day, one of my students made me realize something important.

During my lecture, he offered an example to illustrate his understanding of a concept I was teaching. While it was general in nature, I realized how beautifully his example applied to copy. Particularly web copy.

In fact, his point was so well made because he drove it home using the very idea he was illustrating.

But before I explain it to you, 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. That is…

… 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.

For instance, when we are contemplating an offer online, we'll likely skim the website and the copy to make sure the offer is legitimate. Is it a scam? Is it real? Is it telling us the truth? Is it trustworthy? Is it devoid of any “fine print?” Is there any catch?

Anything contradictory 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 read the copy, and understand the basic message and learn about the products it offers. But do we truly understand the meaning behind the message?

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

Too many websites describe the products they are selling or use a language that only the sellers understand. More than likely, buyers in these cases do understand the content but they do not fully grasp what these products can do for them specifically.

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

Specifically, the brain processes information by visualizing what it's being told and comparing the given information to something it 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.

OK, now that I've cleared that up, let's go back to the student's point mentioned at the beginning. At the end of my lecture, he turns to me, and then pulls out a chair and places it beside a class table. He asks, “Mike, what's the difference between this chair and table?” I said, “One is to sit on and the other is to write on.”

“No!” he shouted. “Not at all.”

I was puzzled. “You're thinking in relative terms,” he adds. “You are describing each individual product and its respective function. You are not directly stating the difference. You are implying it. The difference is their function. Get it?”

Noticing that I was still perplexed, he continues: “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,” my student said.

I was still a little puzzled but eventually got it. 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.

Let me try to take a stab at it.

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.

So rather than saying “color,” “function,” “size,” etc, which is the right answer, 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 the same color as my car.” In other words, you are relating it to something else.

You're thinking in relative terms.

Most of us do. And most of your prospects and visitors do, too.

You were baffled, which is the point I tried to make. If we're too direct or too literal in our copy, we will baffle our audience. Your copy must work to appeal to this behavior. The last thing you want to do is confuse your prospects. If they are, they'll click away. Fast.

We often write copy that we understand — content only a few people may understand. But we are never our market. So it's best to use comparisons, analogies, stories, similes, examples, and metaphors so that the mind can understand what it is being told.

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 the value) of “140 acres.”

The reader may ask, “What's the size of 140 acres?” The mind thinks in pictures, not in numbers. And since it thinks in relative terms, 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's mind 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 mind will now understand because it can relate it 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.”

Nevertheless, as you can see my student made an excellent point.

That's why it's important to use picture words, metaphors, and analogies with your copy so that the mind of your readers can easily interpret and fully appreciate what is being communicated to them. (That's why stories, what I call “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 device. And through market research, you've discovered that your audience is made up of classic movie video aficionados. To explain the main benefit of using a computer backup device, 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 watching your favorite movie you waited for days to buy at your local video store, when suddenly your VCR dies and destroys the videotape, especially when an important scene in the movie was about to unfold. Now you have to return to the video store. It's frustrating! What's more frustrating is when you realize it's the only copy they have.”

Are you encoding your message so that your audience can easily decode it? Does your copy truly communicate in their language? Does it explain the product you offer — and particularly its benefits — in terms they, and their minds, can relate to?

If not, then your readers' UPA will be one that will lead to disinterest, misunderstanding, 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!

Since people can't inspect products online, your copy has a great responsibility in replacing the tangibility and the feelings your offer lacks and visitors want.

If it doesn't, then your readers will make assumptions — assumptions that might not work in your favor. If they have to think to fully appreciate what you're saying, even if it's only for a fraction of a second, it may be counterproductive.

So make sure the UPAs your visitors make are the ones you want them to make. If you want them to assume your business has good customer service and has a great product that's easy to use, then make sure your sales copy indirectly communicates the same.

The long and short of it is this…

Is your website confusion-proof? Is your copy describing your product to your target market in relative terms? Are you speaking in their lingo, using stories, analogies, metaphors and vivid mental imagery they can easily and instantly relate to? Do you describe your offer with something they can understand, appreciate, and visualize?

Since your visitors will make unconscious paralleled assumptions (or “UPAs”) about you or your product, and they will whether you want to or not, you better make them good ones. Guide them by making those assumptions for them. The ones you want.