I took a professional speaking course where the instructor told us of a specific tactic I later realized I often used in copywriting. He called it the “Triple-Tell” formula. Chances are, you’ve heard of it before:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them,
- Tell them (what you want to tell them), and
- Tell them what you told them.
In most marketing pieces, this technique can work well, and it does for more reasons than you think. It doesn’t have to apply to the entire message, either.
When public speaking, the goal is to introduce what you’re going to talk about, and at the end conclude with a summary of what you’ve presented.
Sounds simple, and it is. But the goal of using this tactic is that it creates context, gives meaning to the information, and drives the point home — the main idea you’re presenting that you want readers to grasp.
In other words, when you’re making an important point, one you want the reader to understand, remember, and assign greater value to, construct your marketing message by following this triple-tell technique.
If I were to simply say “increase your property value with a security alarm,” it’s not tangible enough. It’s boring and smacks of hype. At best, it’s an empty claim. And it’s easily dismissable, even if only unconsciously.
But instead, you could say:
- “Did you know that have a home security alarm can both save you and make you money, too?” (You tell them what you’re going to tell them.)
- “In a recent study put together by 107 insurance companies, homes with an alarm system are 83.11% more likely to have higher property values than those without one.” (You tell them.)
- “So not only do home alarm systems protect what’s precious, whether it’s your sleeping toddlers and that wedding ring your grandmother gave you, but also they reduce insurance rates and may significantly bump up your property value, too.” (You tell them what you told them.)
This process is called looping.
Looping is a technique where you introduce an idea (you “open the loop”), describe the idea, and then finish the idea (you “close the loop”).
Once you open the loop, your audience will read every word, and do so more intently and intensely, than just reading a piece of marketing copy. Plus, they will remember the idea more.
In 1927, Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that restaurant waiters, who seemed to memorize their customers’ orders, would immediately forget them once the food was served.
In other words, she found that unfinished tasks created a certain tension that caused the brain to “hook” onto the task until it was completed. This is now known as the Zeigarnik Effect.
Humans have an intrinsic need for closure. We get a certain feeling of disconcertedness when something is left unfinished. That’s why cliffhangers work so well in stories and TV shows.
In writing marketing copy specifically, this tension created by opening the loop forces your audience to read and to read more deliverately as they search for the rest of the information. Their minds want to close the loop.
You might take your time while in the process of “telling them” until you close the loop. Some marketers use this tactic to unwittingly force others through a mountain of content. But keep in mind that, while anticipation is good, keeping it for too long might create hostility and can backfire.
Remember the controversial Sopranos series finale?
(As a sidenote, Dexter, a show I enjoyed immensely but whose ending was awful, is making a comeback in 2021, apparently to tie the series with a better bowtie this time. Or is that cling wrap?)
Back to my security alarm example: in it, I’ve applied several other copywriting tactics that you can use, too. Did you notice them?
Looping is one of them. But there are five in all:
With every claim you make in your marketing messages, you need to back it up. Saying “we’re number one,” “we’re rated top in the industry,” or “we deliver the best quality customer service” all appear spurious if left as is.
By whose standards? In which publication? For which market?
Justify the claim to give it meaning. But even justified claims are not enough. You need to link them to the reader somehow or else your claim, no matter how much you explain it, will seem self-serving and arrogant.
So turn the claim into a benefit.
“We are the highest quality because we use lab-tested materials and skilled workmanship that help prevent your widget from breaking down when you need it the most! That’s why we offer the longest warranty in the business.”
If you need to credentialize who you are, what you do, who you serve, then turn each credential into a meaningful, concrete benefit to the reader. “We’re the best because…” And then explain it. Back it up.
In the security alarm example above, the claim that security alarms raise property value references a study made by 107 insurance companies, which makes the claim far more believable and credible. It makes the claim concrete and gives it teeth, in other words.
Numbers are quite effective at arousing curiosity. Using a number makes the point, claim, or benefit quantifiable. It adds a level of certain objectivity to something that can otherwise seem subjective.
When people see numbers, like “The top 10 bread-baking shortcuts for non-bakers,” those who fall within that target market will wonder, “What are they?”
Incidentally, this is where many clever copywriters try to use clickbait, such as adding: “And you won’t believe what number seven is!” Don’t do this. It’s a risk. What if “number seven” is believable or exaggerated?
Clickbait that makes a promise and fulfills that promise is not clickbait — not the type people hate, anyway. Using it is off-putting to many. Most readers have been burned by clickbait, which often feels more like clickbait-and-switch.
So avoid presenting it that way. Sure, create curiosity and intrigue. But be clear. As marketing director Daniel Burstein once wrote, it’s better to use clarity instead of hype. (I’ll return to clarity later.)
Other examples include:
- “10 fears people are afraid to talk about.”
- “Turn your marriage around in less than a month.”
- “How to lose inches off your gut in just 30 days.”
- “Join 10,000 satisfied clients today.”
But here’s a mini-tip.
Use realistic numbers. One way is to be more specific, for the more specific you are, the more credible your copy will be. Often, odd and obscure numbers, like 17 or 23, can catch people’s attention. But they also connote greater believability as they seem harder to make up.
So instead of using the examples above, use:
- “9 fears people are afraid to talk about.”
- “Turn your marriage around in 4.5 weeks or less.”
- “How to lose 2.5 inches off your gut in just 27 days.”
- “Join 9,973 satisfied clients today.”
A great way to engage readers is to paint vivid mental pictures. Mental imagery has always been a powerful tactic in marketing messages, but it’s especially potent when trying to drive an important point home.
When your audience can picture in their minds what you are trying to say, they will be much more apt to “dive into your message.” (See what I did there?)
Studies show that mental imagery improves credibility, too. The reason being, when a message engages more than one sense (and mental imagery can help trigger the reader’s other senses), studies show that it raises the reader’s level of comprehension and approval.
Use your thesaurus to pick words that help paint better pictures. You can use synonyms, but sometimes synonyms may be just as bland and unevocative. So think of using metaphors, similes, analogies, or alternate words that describe the action or the object.
For example, “How cosmetic dentistry changes lives” is pretty straightforward. But a better message might be, “The secret behind life-transforming smiles.”
Back to the first example at the beginning, saying that a security alarm protects your family or valuables is one thing, but saying that it protects your sleeping children or an irreplaceable family heirloom creates far better pictures in the mind. And pictures also stick better in the mind, too.
Finally, if you’re trying to use metaphors and analogies, remember to keep your audience in mind. Metaphors are meant to help the mind relate to what you’re saying, to reduce the work needed to understand your message.
However, some people try to be clever with their messages. Particularly with headlines. Cleverness doesn’t make you look smart, it makes the reader feel dumb — and by doing so, you will dissuade and aggravate them instead.
Cleverness is also counterproductive.
Why? Because it forces readers to work harder to understand and make the connection, which is what using imagery in the first place is supposed to avoid.
The time it takes for them to understand may just be a fraction of a second in many cases. But online (and with smartphones), a fraction of a second may seem like an eternity. Studies even show that people make decisions not within 1/4 of a second as originally thought but within 1/20th of a second.
So be clear. If your marketing message is meant to be thoughtful or thought-provoking, that’s perfectly fine. But don’t try to be clever in an attempt to make some persuasive argument. Lack of clarity will make your message far less persuasive as a result.
Remember, you’re not writing to impress your readers. (And you’re not writing for your peers, either.) You’re writing to inform your audience. You’re writing to inspire them. And most of all, you’re writing to invite them to take action.
Make people think. But don’t make them guess.
Ultimately, applying these five tips above to your marketing message will make it more inherently persuasive without the need to be deliberately persuasive, which can be counterproductive.