Persuasive Writing: 4 Copywriting Techniques Swiped from Psychology

Persuasive Writing Header for Copy HackersWhen you’re talking conversion rate optimization (CRO), you’re usually also talking persuasion.

Persuasion and conversion go hand-in-hand. If you’re not persuading visitors – to sign up, to comment, to share, to buy – it’s going to be very hard for you to boost your conversion rate…

You’ve heard about persuasion in general. Maybe something about loss aversion or something about contrast effect – topics we cover in in this free persuasion ebook – but what else is out there? After all, knowing a little only leaves you wanting more, right?

So here are 4 useful, little-known tricks to amplify the power of your copy and persuade… without getting gimmicky, sleazy or embarrassing. But first, the short list for those tl;drs out there:

[highlight]1. Don’t be sloppy – write rhyming copy
2. Use a word that humanoids don’t expect to see
3. Repeat your message again and again
4. Organize your lists so peeps remember the right stuff[/highlight]

Persuasive Writing Technique 1:
Rhyme as Reason Effect”

Check out this snippet from Animoto‘s home page:

Rhyme as ReasonSee that second line? That’s a solid example of Rhyme as Reason Effect at play. Swiped from smart psychologists, this principle holds that:

When two words or phrases rhyme,
people are more likely to believe them.
(tweet this now)

The rhyme-as-reason effect is closely related to the Fluency Heuristic – where “we are swayed by the ease and palatability of everything we encounter in our world” (Wray Herbert).

In 1998, Psychology Today wrote about a study conducted by Matthew McGlone, PhD. McGlone gave students a list of phrases that rhyme and phrases that don’t – like “Woes unite foes” vs “Misfortunes unite foes” – and found that students believed the rhyming phrases more accurately described human behaviors.

So a rule to consider for your copy: if it rhymes, it must be true.

Or, more aptly, if it’s like a song, it can’t be wrong.

Now on to the next persuasive writing technique…

Persuasive Writing Technique 2:
“Bizarreness Effect”

We talk a lot in our web copywriting books about the importance of making things stand out… and the Bizarreness Effect is yet another example of why being a wallflower sucks in marketing. Here’s what the Bizarreness Effect teaches us (and, yes, that’s the scientific name for it):

Unusual or unfamiliar material is easier to remember
than common material.
(tweet this now)

So y’know how I rant about “Save Time & Money” as the crappiest message on earth? Well, one reason I loathe it so much is because it’s completely common phrasing… which basically wipes out its chance of recall… and recall is kinduv a big deal not only for converting visitors – they need to remember messages as they move through your site – but also for generating shares and retaining customers.

This 1995 study found that people were best able to recall messages when bizarre nouns were mixed with common words in a standard sentence. As Jason Carr summarized, for Bizarreness Effect to improve your visitors’ recall, there needs to be:

  1. A distinctiveness of the bizarre material (e.g., noticeably different word)
  2. An uncomplicated sentence structure

In 2005, Macklin and McDaniel found that common nouns embedded in unusual sentences were easier for peeps to recall than common nouns embedded in standard / boring sentences.

So say something different. I mean, say something wackadaisically wild.

No, it’s not great for SEO… but it’s great for communicating your message.

Before we move on to the third persuasive writing trick, here’s an example of this tactic at play on the Foolish Adventure podcast site:

Hobo CEO Foolish Adventure

Persuasive Writing Technique 3:
“Illusion of Truth Effect”

What’s the Illusion of Truth Effect? It sounds sort of awesome and highfalutin, right?

Well, it’s really just a fancy way to say that repetition works (as the 2 experiments here showed). In a nutshell:

The more you hear a message,
the more likely you are to believe it’s true.
(tweet this now)

So in case you needed another reason to use email marketing and retargeting – to say nothing of social media – voila

You need to make your message familiar – not just on your website but also across the other channels and media your prospects use.

Now, before you start using copy-paste all over your marketing materials, note this: you don’t have to say a message exactly the same way each time for the Illusion of Truth Effect to work for you. At Microconf 2013, I spoke briefly about a copywriting technique called “3D,” where you write the same message three different ways in sequence (i.e., without interruption). Check that presentation out here

Last on this technique, remember this important point: The Illusion of Truth Effect works best when your audience isn’t that attentive. The more actively they’re processing your messages, the better your argument should be – or you’ll simply be imprinting negative branding on ’em! Now on to the fourth and final technique…

Persuasive Writing Technique 4:
“Serial Position Effect”

Take a read through this list from the Batchbook home page:


Now close your eyes and try to recall the items in the list. Don’t peek! Just give yourself ~5 seconds to think about what you saw on that list…

K, open your eyes. 🙂

Which messages came back to you? Was it the first few… or the last few? Did you remember any details about the stuff in the middle?

A big part of my Master’s research project was the study of primacy effect and recency effect on online consumers; these two effects fall under Serial Position Effect, which breaks down like this:

People remember what they saw first or last
but almost never what they saw in the middle.
(tweet this now)

There are studies galore on this subject, with a full reprint of a pivotal 1960s study here and simpler retellings here, here and here

My friend Darren designed this to show primacy vs recency:

Serial position effect and decision-making

On the web in particular we use a lot of bullet lists, don’t we? Do you know what order to put shizzle into your bullet lists so your visitors recall the critical stuff?

How about if you have a really big global nav? How do you organize the items in that nav? Just based on an internal card sorting exercise… or on principles like the Serial Position Effect?

The question is really this: what stuff are you okay with your visitors NOT seeing? Whatever your answer to that question, that’s what you’ll put in the middle of your bullet list, in the murk of your scrolly Features page or in the mire of your uber-huge nav.

EXCEPTION: The Von Restorff Effect
If an item in the middle of your list stands out – as in, if it’s eye-catching – your visitors may remember it better.

I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about how my brain works, the more I want to learn…

But we as startup marketers don’t need to know every cognitive bias under the sun to start using what we know to our website’s advantage…

So, what are you going to do with the four copywriting techniques we’ve just discussed?

Here are actions you can take right now – CHOOSE ONE:

1. Reorder your bullet lists to ensure the items in the middle are least important to prospects

2. Set up a headline test on any page – it doesn’t have to be on your home page – where you replace 1 of the words in your current headline with something “bizarre”

3. Adjust your most sent autoresponder to repeat your value proposition across each email in the series (e.g., in the email header)

4. Where you have a small line of text – like a subhead or an About Us line in your footer – tweak it to make it rhyme… yes, really 🙂

And if you find yourself falling IN LOVE with the psychology of how we make decisions, sign up for our newsletter because you’ll get a free 170-page ebook on persuasion.


About the author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe - Copywriter and author of "Copyhackers"

  • As a former neuroscientist, I find this very inspiring. I’ve adapted some of these techniques (and added others) into interactive examples on my copywriting/UX writing website. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Copywriter Steve

    Well here’s a post I’ll be sharing with a few folks I know. Cheers for taking the time!

  • Todd Collective

    Nice post, you certainly got me thinking. I’ll be sharing this one with a few friends.

  • Nevada Prinz

    Repeat, rhyme, stand out, and time. Got it.

  • I absolutely love the psychology side of marketing. It connects with our prime nature. I love the idea of rhyming in a copy, I’ll try it with next content. So tru about remembering first and last items from the lists – we know where to place most prominent content. Big thumbs up!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    WOOHOO – I love rhymes. My favorite writing technique is alliteration. I overuse it, but, when done right, it lends a rhythm to prose. 😀

  • Genevieve

    Just got to this post now, and I’m glad I did. Great tips (and fascinating!). Would love to hear follow-ups with your readers on how these (or any of your other copywriting ideas) worked out for them.

  • Anthony Idle

    Hadn’t noticed the Animoto copy rhyming and I’ve be there a lot. Guess this really flies in under the radar.

  • Andres Caro

    Simply brilliant Joanna.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Andres!

  • James Barron

    Great post Joanna and thank you for the ebook. I like the idea of rhyming but I am concerned if people become aware of a rhyming developer it may raise an eyebrow or two (depending on target audience). I used to work with a guy who loved puns, rhymes and anything else similar he could squeeze into his copy, this was on a magazine so no split testing available, I wonder what an effect it was having.
    p.s. Yes I did consider rhyming it all but quickly realised I was a fool.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Yeah, when it comes to persuasion ‘techniques’, moderation is key. You don’t want people to notice + think about what you’re doing – because we’re actually trying to work with their brains, not to get their brains to perk up and start actively churning.

      So I agree that you shouldn’t go crazy with rhyming (or with any ‘tricks’). And you shouldn’t use all of the techniques; just choose 1 that may be worth testing with your audience, and go for it. Although, that said, the ordering of your products, bullets, etc. is usually subtle enough that you can apply it liberally….

      PS: LOL!

  • Mark @ Make Them Click

    Great stuff as always.

    • Joanna Wiebe


  • Ramsay Leimenstoll

    Great post! I’ve got a follow-up Q: if I’ve got a messaging hierarchy based on VOC data, and I’ve got a section header and chunk of body copy for each one that will go on the home page, is that a case where I should try the Serial Position Effect? Currently my wireframe has them in exactly the order the Messaging Hierarchy ranks them in, but is it worthwhile to try putting the *less important* messages in the hierarchy higher up than some of the *more important* ones? Or is this really more for quick-and-dense structures like a bullet-point list?

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Hey, Ramsay, great Q – I’d think about the Serial Position Effect more when working on the “quick and dense structures” you mention, like actual bullet lists. Because SPE is yet another way that we simple-minded little humans 🙂 try to process the least possible amount of info, from what I’ve seen, it’s less about making sense of vast and spread-out amounts of info across a page and more about grouping + chunking data sets.

      Long story short: I’d keep SPE in mind when organizing both vertical bullet lists and horizontal snippets of information (e.g., reasons to believe, testimonials) —- obvious groups of messages that need to be made sense of swiftly by a brain wishing to exert itself as little as possible. Cool?

      • Ramsay Leimenstoll

        Thanks, Joanna! Makes sense to me; I appreciate the explanation 🙂

  • Ryan Engley

    Really love the four point summary at the end. Great use of serial position effect to get us to remember 😉

    Clever, clever…

    • Joanna Wiebe

      I tried to put the easiest ones as the first and fourth points. You’re on to me, RyRy! 🙂

  • Phenomenal tips as usual. I need to apply these things to my next newsletter email. We’ll see how they work.

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Thanks, Jen! When I think about applying these techniques, I can’t help but think that, while three of them seem like elegant and hard-to-spot strategies, the rhyming one seems a little goofy to me. But I kinda wanna do it ‘cos it’s so out of my comfort zone. Let’s both try it and tweet each other with the results.

  • Love all of these tips, straight from copyhacker’s lips!

    See what I did there? I’m practicing! Thanks so much!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Y’know, I tried coming up with a reply that rhymes… but what rhymes with Nathalie or Lussier? I’m stumped.

  • Stephan Hovnanian

    My brain’s full, but in such a good way. Awesome post with actionable examples…I’m gonna try the rhyming one soon. thank you!!

    • Joanna Wiebe

      Cool, Stephan! I mentioned to Jen (2 comments above) that I was gonna try rhyming and she should, too — and so should you! Then tweet me if you see anything interesting come of it, k? Good luck!

      • Stephan Hovnanian

        any suggestions on where to run a test? Social? Email? An active social profile vs. one with “crickets” for engagement?

      • Joanna Wiebe

        The idea with rhyming is that it makes your message stick – and it can be hard to measure sticky messages. Sometimes they lead to conversions you can see right away; other times they have longer-term effects (e.g., brand recognition or loyalty) that are hard to measure in a standard test.

        I would simply try tweaking some existing copy. Check out the subtle change to wording that Paul used on his home page headline:

      • Stephan Hovnanian

        thanks Joanna. I did a couple of rhymed headlines for Google+ posts (copied you on a tweet of one). Caught the attention of my followers faster than I’ve seen other headlines. This wasn’t a very controlled or scientific test, and both posts were re-shares, however, I post about 10 times a day on Google+ and was pretty impressed with the speed of +1’s for these two posts, compared to others that had non-rhyming headlines. So it seems, again, at first glance, that rhyming can get your attention and put you in a positive frame of mind to interact on a social post.

      • Joanna Wiebe

        Woo-hoo! Nice work. 🙂 Next time try a super-bizarre word in there — see if that helps. Dare we hope…?

      • Stephan Hovnanian

        heck, what if I could rhyme said super-bizarre word?! 🙂

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