The Science of Writing Persuasive Copy

Some say good writing is an art. While we do agree, we’re here to point out that science can play just as crucial a role.

Persuading people to believe what you’re saying has been a vital element to human interaction and survival from the time we first began telling stories. And while we’ve advanced in many areas, the millennia haven’t changed us that much. Effective persuasion can still be studied and mimicked from a scientific standpoint.

Below are 10 scientific principles that, when applied to copywriting, can make your stories irresistible:

1. Get chummy with the ‘Old Brain’

Neuroscience tells us that the brain has three layers, each with a separate function; the ‘New Brain’ is the most recently developed, and does our logical thinking; the ‘Middle Brain’ works on an emotional level and does our feeling; and the ‘Old Brain’ – the oldest, most animal layer – makes the actual decisions, using input from the other two.

This article from Forbes describes how these layers play out in the workforce, to give you a real-life example.

In writing, we tend to try using complex reasoning (‘New Brain’ territory) to logic our products into a customer’s cart, when actually we should be dumbing it down and appealing to the ‘Old Brain’.

It all comes down to the selling probability, whose formula looks like this:

Selling probability = Pain x Claim x Gain x (Old Brain)3

You need to identify your customer’s pain and acknowledge it before you sell them anything. Then, make your claims to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Keep in mind, the strongest claim eliminates the most pain for a customer.

Now give your convincing proof with tangible evidence (more on that later), data, testimonials (more on that, too) and case studies. Prove what will be gained by the customer by using your product.

Then, and only then, can you deliver it to the ‘Old Brain’ with an attention-grabbing headline and intriguing visual that plays on our natural curiosity and desire to solve problems.

2. Make readers feel obligated to do what you want

While this sounds harsh, it’s just a case of using the principle of reciprocity, as detailed by persuasion guru Robert Cialdini.

Basically, it states that when you give something to others, they will feel obligated to give back to you. It’s the reason your mum made you write thank you cards for your birthday gifts, or why your neighbours bring you a cake after you dog-sit for them while they’re on holiday.

This can be leveraged in writing in several ways:

  • teach your readers something useful, and then ask them to share it if they learnt from it
  • give away a free e-book or content audit in return for an email address
  • send them helpful advice via an email marketing campaign for a few months before you try to sell them anything

3. Get readers to like you

And not on Facebook (though that helps, too). Again, Mr. Cialdini points out that we tend to say ‘yes’ more frequently to those we know and like.

It’s why you’d happily lend £10 to your sibling but would be less likely to pass the same amount to the work colleague who keeps rejecting your project proposals. It’s also why you find people ‘kissing up’ to their bosses or teachers in an attempt to get on their ‘good side’.

Using it in your copy is a bit trickier, as you don’t have the opportunity to personally contact every reader. Some ways you could try to do it:

  • Write as if you are talking to your best friend, letting the words flow naturally
  • Share details about yourself that show the real people behind the brand
  • Start a blog that discusses topics readers can connect with (not just sales announcements and company news)
  • Be friendly and let your values reflect in your copy

4. Sell time, not money

Research from Stanford University has shown that people are more concerned about their time than their money.

If you can prove that your product is a valuable addition to how they spend their time, you’re more likely to make a connection with customers than if you solely focus on ‘big savings’ and ‘last minute deals’.

It’s why companies like Amazon have introduced one-day delivery services and why Google obsesses about page speed optimisation – if you’re wasting people’s time, they’re likely to walk away and not come back.

In writing, time vs. money tends to play out in product descriptions and email marketing. Your writing needs to speak to what really matters to customers, and while they may be drawn in by your massive ‘40% off sale’, they’re more likely to be convinced by a product that will save them 7 minutes every day. Or, in other words, over 40 hours (an entire work week of time) in a year.

If your products aren’t efficiency machines, this principle can still be applied, you just need to associate your product with a certain moment in consumers lives. Read the next point for more on this.

5. Link products to moments using empathy

Going back to the brain, the big player in this area is what neuroscientists call mirror neurons.

These little guys are why you cringe when you hear the story of someone’s bone breaking, or cry when the main characters in a film mourn their dog dying. You’re empathising with them.

The same idea, in writing, requires you to elicit a strong emotion from someone based on a situation they can empathise with or picture themselves in.

It should be noted that this means finding a feeling that’s already there with a reader and bringing it out.

Coca-Cola plasters this type of persuasion across their copy and advertisements using nostalgia and good times. You never see someone drinking a Coke alone; instead, they’re always smiling, laughing and with a group of friends or family whom they love.

Tying back to selling time over money, Coca-Cola could be writing ‘£2 off every two-litre bottle’ but instead, are writing ‘Share a Coke with [insert clever name here]’. They’re constantly reminding us that their products are about sharing valuable time with others.

6. Provide convincing social proof

As social creatures, we crave the approval and suggestions of those around us. We’re influenced (read: persuaded) by those we know and trust – and even other peers we don’t know personally but who hold authority – to buy a product, read a certain article or share a video.

This has become a marketing goldmine. In 2015, 75% of companies were using influencer marketing to reach target audiences.

While the numbers vary, between 77% and 93% of consumers also read customer reviews before making a purchase online.

The vast majority of people are followers by nature. Your writing needs to convince readers that what you sell or say is what everyone is buying or reading.

How to do it:

  • Advertise your numbers by showing how many people are already on your email list or using your product
  • Use testimonials that let prospective customers read past consumer experiences
  • Ask for customer reviews and feedback, and publish this information on your site

7. Become an authority

Good ol’ Robert Cialdini also tells us that people rely on those in positions of authority or those with superior knowledge to provide guidance on decisions.

We’d trust Forbes.com over businessadvice.org for information on starting a business, or Moz.com over seohackers.net to give solid advice on search engine marketing.

So, when it comes to your own writing, you need to:

  • Demonstrate your expertise with plenty of statistics, outbound links and picture proof
  • Show off your past successes (aka your resume of awards, high-profile articles, etc.) and your positive results
  • Get endorsed by other high-profile sites (for instance, link to guest posts you’ve written for Kissmetrics or The Guardian article covering your product)

8. Advocate for the devil

Just a catchier term for playing devil’s advocate, if you’re unafraid to point out flaws, you’re more likely to earn readers’ trust.

Charlan Nemeth, a social psychologist, and a group of researchers examined exactly why this works. They concluded that when you bring up potential flaws and concerns, you’re more likely to offer a solution that addresses them.

That last point is crucial. Phrases like, ‘You may be wondering how this works…’ or ‘How can this product really help you?’ work this angle. But, you need to ensure that you also address these concerns, otherwise, your writing works against itself.

By putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and asking and addressing their potential questions and concerns, you’ll essentially be able to turn your own weaknesses into strengths.

9. Make resources seem scarce

Most likely, we’ve all felt that panic rising when we’re looking at flights and the website tells us ‘only three seats left at this price’ and ‘six others are looking at this flight’.

That’s the principle of scarcity. Opportunities seem more valuable when there are fewer available.

Black Friday is another great example of real-life scarcity. When there are only 20 flat-screen TVs on offer, people line up for days to be the first ones through the door.

It can be traced back to our survival instinct. If only a small amount of food was available, we’d fight for our share.

In writing, you can create this sense of urgency by:

  • Using time or quantity limited bonuses, i.e. free e-book only available for next 30 hours
  • Limiting access to your product
  • Promoting exclusivity, like asking people to join for exclusive content non-members can’t see or using a headline that says ‘For single ladies only!’ (It’s almost guaranteed that non-single ladies will read it too)

10. Write stories, not sales pitches

Finally, if you only implement one item from this list, make it this one. We’ve been storytellers for thousands of years. Our entire history was passed down this way before writing began.

Even now, when typing’s made writing and sharing easier than ever, a good story is less likely to be forgotten than a humdrum sales article.

It’s why great business people often lead sales pitches with a story others can identify and relate with.

Chip Heath, a Stanford business school professor, and his brother Dan Health, a corporate education consultant at Duke University, found ideas that follow these principles stick in readers’ minds.

Memorable ideas are:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Stories encapsulate everything we do in an easy-to-digest, interesting way. Telling yours effectively can transform your business.


Using the ten principles above to enhance your writing can be incredibly powerful. With science backing up our art, doors open onto memorable, persuasive content that pulls readers in and leaves them wanting more.

Get in touch with WooContent today for a free copywriting quote that will persuade, engage and convert.

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