How do you make your words more powerful?
How do you make your words sparkle so your ideas can burst forward?
As writers, we often emulate the old masters.
We study adverts by David Ogilvy and Gary Halbert. We devour the books by Hemingway and Chandler. We try to figure out why their writing is so powerful, and then apply the same techniques to our own writing.
But good writing is not just about emulation and intuition.
Science backs up a lot of writing advice.
Shall I show you?
A science-backed approach to writing for impact
Today’s blog post is inspired by the book Writing for Impact by Bill Birchard.
Birchard summarizes the latest brain research on language processing and how it applies to impactful writing.
These lessons apply to any type of writing, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, whether you’re writing to educate, sell, or entertain, and whether you’re writing an email, an article, a white paper, or a book.
So, how do you poke people so they pay attention? And how do you keep them hooked?
1. Keep it simple
Simple writing takes less processing power and less energy.
That’s why readers like it.
Professor Jonah Berger checked how long readers stick with news articles; and the results are clear: The harder an article is to read, the less people read.1
So, simplicity motivates people to keep reading.
The most common way to measure simplicity is to review the length of paragraphs, sentences, and words. For instance, Apple’s copywriters know the power of short sentences and short paragraphs:
It’s here. The biggest redesign in the history of Apple GPUs. A17 Pro is an entirely new class of iPhone chip that delivers our best graphics performance by far.
That’s 29 words in 3 sentences, so just under 10 words on average.
Here’s another snippet:
NameDrop. Want to swap contact info with someone? Just bring your iPhone close to theirs. You can both choose what you want to share, and the information transfers instantly.
That’s 29 words in 4 sentences if you count the one-word sentence at the start.
Shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, and shorter words indicate that a text is easier to read. Plus, a focus on short forces a writer to communicate their ideas tiny step by tiny step, making reading almost effortless.
To write simply, keep revising. Keep asking yourself: How can I make this simpler?
How to simplify your writing >>
2. Be concrete
Good writers intuitively know the power of concrete language.
And research proves them right.
One study2 found that customers tend to be more satisfied when an email suggests “You will receive your money back shortly” rather than “You will receive your refund shortly.” That’s because the word money is more concrete than refund.
Similarly, customers are more likely to buy when you tell them “Those blue jeans are a great choice” rather than “Those pants are a great choice.” That’s because the phrase blue jeans is more specific than pants; it paints a clearer picture.
So, concrete language improves customer satisfaction and increases sales. Of course, Apple’s copywriters know the power of specificity, too:
iPhone 15 Pro is the first iPhone to feature an aerospace‑grade titanium design, using the same alloy that spacecraft use for missions to Mars.
It’s not just titanium, it’s aerospace-grade, and to be even more specific: It’s the same alloy that spacecraft use for missions to Mars.
Such precision is powerful, eh?
It’s way more powerful than just saying: We use the strongest titanium in our design.
Of course, including specific details makes a text a tad more complicated and a bit harder to read. So, always choose your details with care. Do they add value for your readers? Or do they make a text needlessly complicated?
The Ladder of Abstraction >>
3. Engage the senses
When we read sensory words, it’s as if our brains enact the experiences we’re reading about.
So, our brains light up almost as if we can see a dazzlingly bright yellow rather than just read about it.
Sensory language is a special form of concrete language. For instance, words like car or blouse are concrete but not sensory. We can turn them into sensory phrases: A dazzlingly bright yellow car or a silky-smooth blouse.
Apple could have written:
Easily set up AirPods on iPhone.
Instead, Apple explains how easy setting up the AirPods is by adding a specific, sensory touch:
Set up AirPods on iPhone with just a tap.
And they end with a sensory flash here:
All‑new Wi‑Fi 6E6 delivers up to two times faster wireless speeds. So you can upload and download files in a flash.
Sensory words don’t just work with physical products like the iPhone; they’re also powerful in combination with abstract concepts.
As Birchard writes,3 a phrase like “Life is a bumpy road” fires up the sensory regions in our brains. “Life is a challenging road” won’t do that. Bumpy is sensory; challenging is not.
Similarly, “The logic was fuzzy” fires up the sensory regions. But “The logic was vague” does not. Fuzzy is sensory; vague is not.
So, no matter what topic you write about, you can sprinkle a few sensory words to captivate your readers. Let readers see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste your delicious words.
How to Arouse the Magic of Sensory Words (Even In Business!) >>
4. Stir up feelings
When reading emotional words, your brain sends signals to your body—almost as if you’re experiencing that emotion.
For instance, Edita Fino and colleagues at the University of Bologna asked people to read statements with positive or negative emotions, such as:4
- Mario smiles
- Mario enjoys
- Mario scowls
- Mario gets angry
Reading positive words activates our smile muscles while reading negative words engage our frown muscles. You may not notice it, but we feel what we read in our bodies.
Moreover, when our frown or smile muscles are blocked from engaging, research shows that our reading speed goes down. So, it could be that feeling emotional words in our body helps us understand a text so we can read faster.5
Note the emotional ending of this paragraph on the iPhone camera:
Cinematic mode automatically shifts the focus to the most important subject in a scene. And now you can master compelling close‑ups with the new 2x optical‑quality zoom. Bravo.
The new USB‑C connector lets you charge your Mac or iPad with the same cable you use to charge iPhone 15 Pro. Bye‑bye, cable clutter.
And here the phrases friend and a goal in your daughter’s football match feel emotional, too:
Now you can take sharper close‑ups from further away — like a phenomenal photo of your friend or a goal in your daughter’s football match.
Each of the above 3 paragraphs ends on an emotional note. Lovely.
Can you breathe life into your writing with a little emotion, too?
172+ Power Words That’ll Drive Engagement and Boost Sales >>
5. Arouse curiosity
You know the pleasure of anticipation, right?
Devouring an unputdownable book because you can’t wait to know what happens next. Or: Reading a popular science book which raises interesting questions you want to know the answers to.
Research shows that when questions are raised, readers enjoy themselves more.6 They anticipate the reward of learning the answers on the questions.
Apple’s subheads raise questions implicitly rather than directly:
Trilogy of tough.
Does that make you want to know what that trilogy is? Here’s the answer:
A strong titanium band. The toughest back glass in a smartphone. And a Ceramic Shield front that’s even tougher than any smartphone glass.
Here’s another example:
StandBy for something special.
Yeah, I’m standing by. What’s special?
StandBy turns your iPhone into a new, full-screen experience with glanceable information you can see from a distance.
In sales copy, we don’t let readers wait long to find out the answers on questions. But in thrillers, you may have noticed that it can take many pages before an answer arrives. That delay can heighten the anticipation and its pleasure.
People are eager to learn. Whether you’re writing a blog post or sales copy, consider how you can satisfy your readers’ hunger for knowledge. What can you teach? And how can you make readers curious to learn more?
The Curiosity Gap: Can You Entice More People to Click and Read? >>
What’s the power of the word you?
Richard Mayer and his colleagues at the University of California wanted to find out.7 So, they created two online presentations about how the respiratory system works.
One version was impersonal. For instance:
During inhaling, the diaphragm moves down, creating more space for the lungs, air enters through the nose or mouth …
The other version replaced the impersonal word the with the pronoun your:
During inhaling, your diaphragm moves down, creating more space for your lungs, air enters through your nose or mouth …
Would you think that tiny difference matters?
People who heard the more personal text were able to give better answers to questions about the presentation. They had understood it better.
Want to know how Apple uses this trick?
They don’t write:
The iPhone 15 Pro presents multiple focal lengths; it’s like having seven pro lenses.
Instead, they insert the words you and your for a more impactful version:
With iPhone 15 Pro, you have multiple focal lengths to work with. It’s like having seven pro lenses in your pocket, everywhere you go.
If you see your writing as a conversation with a reader, you’ll find the word you slipping in naturally.
How to Use the Word “You” Correctly to Engage Readers >>
7. Show up
Is it bad to refer to myself in my writing?
Research8 suggests that readers continuously engage in mind-reading, trying to figure out what an author is like. That mind-reading is most strongly when they see action. So, by including your actions or thoughts, you give readers cues about your beliefs, traits, and goals.
Apple could have written:
The iPhone 15 Pro Max features a 5x Telephoto camera with the longest optical zoom of any iPhone ever to fit in our compact Pro camera system.
But they don’t write that. They insert themselves into the text (we designed):
For iPhone 15 Pro Max, we designed a 5x Telephoto camera with the longest optical zoom of any iPhone ever to fit in our compact Pro camera system.
Apple portrays themselves as the good guys working hard to make our lives better. They design. They create, and they pioneer:
We created a state‑of‑the‑art tetraprism design — a folded glass structure below the lens — to reflect light rays four times over. This allows light to travel for longer in the same space, giving you a new focal length that really goes the distance.
To support the tetraprism design, we pioneered a 3D sensor‑shift optical image stabilisation and autofocus module that moves in all three directions. Our most advanced stabilisation system ever delivers twice as many micro-adjustments as before.
Don’t want to come across as self-centered?
Try including the words you and your more often than I and me (or we and our). Just like in a good conversation: Talk a little about yourself but mostly, be interested in your reader.
How to Be More Personal in Your Writing (Without Cringing) >>
8. Delight with the unexpected
When reading, our brains try predicting what comes next.
When those predictions prove right, a text feels rather boring. However, when the predictions turn out wrong, readers become more engaged. Birchard argues that we’re interested in novelties and surprise because that’s how we learn.
For instance, Jean-Louis Dessalles, a professor in cognitive science, set up an experiment in which he asked people to read a series of miniature stories. Each story was cut off before the end, and readers were asked which ending they’d prefer. The most unexpected endings were preferred.9
Surprise happens on a more granular level, too. Research by Katherine DeLong and others at the University of California showed that we predict what words are to come before reading them.10 So, even a surprising word combination or an unexpected metaphor can pique readers’ interest and keep them engaged.
Here’s how Apple surprises with made up words:
New camera. New design. Newphoria.
Focus‑pocus, magical new portraits.
In Apple’s copy, I detect a joy in language, an appreciation of words. Words are carefully chosen, but there’s also a sense of play.
That on its own is a reward to me for reading their copy, too.
4 fun ways to surprise your readers and keep them engaged >>
Good writing starts with good ideas (or good products)
Let’s step back for a minute.
These writing techniques are all fab and worthwhile using.
But they only work when you start with knowing your readers and offering them valuable advice or a useful or enjoyable product: Offer them something that can help improve their lives.
Apple copy can only be so good because they know why their audience would enjoy using their products.
So, this is always where you start:
Who is your reader? How can you make their life better?
Next, use the smart techniques outlined above to make your words more powerful.
Be good. Be helpful. Be seductive.
This article was inspired by the following book:
- Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Readers’ Brains by Bill Birchard (Amazon affiliate link; if possible, please support your local bookstore)
2. Grant Packard and Jonah Berger, “How Concrete Language Shapes Customer Satisfaction,” Journal of Consumer Research 47, no. 5 (2021), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 42-43 (Kindle edition)
3. Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla, and Krish Sathian, “Metaphorically Feeling: Comprehending Textural Metaphors Activates Somatosensory Cortex,” Brain and Language 120, no3 (2012), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 45-46 (Kindle edition)
4. Edita Fino et al., “Enjoying vs. Smiling: Facial Muscular Activation in Response to Emotional Language,” Biological Psychology 118 (2016), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 81-82 (Kindle edition)
5. David A. Havas, Arthur M. Glenberg, and Mike Rinck, “Emotion Simulation During Language Comprehension,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14, no. 3 (2007); David A. Havas et al., “Cosmetic Use of Botulinum Toxin-A Affects Processing of Emotional Language,” Psychological Science 21, no. 7 (2010); Joshua D. Davis, Piotr Winkielman, and Seana Coulson, “Facial Action and Emotional Language: ERP Evidence That Blocking Facial Feedback Selectively Impairs Sentence Comprehension,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 27, no. 11 (2015), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 82-84 (Kindle edition)
6. Christopher Hsee, Bowen Ruan, and Zoe Y. Lu, “Creating Happiness by First Inducing and Then Satisfying a Desire: The Case of Curiosity,” ACR North American Advances in Consumer Research 43 (2015), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 106-107 (Kindle edition)
7. Richard E. Mayer et al., “A Personalization Effect in Multimedia Learning: Students Learn Better When Words Are in Conversational Style Rather Than Formal Style,” Journal of Educational Psychology 96, no. 2 (2004): 389–95, quoted in: Writing for Impact, p. 146-148
8. Various studies, see Birchard, Bill. Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Readers’ Brains, p. 135-154 (Kindle edition)
9. Jean-Louis Dessalles, “Have You Anything Unexpected to Say? The Human Propensity to Communicate Surprise and Its Role in the Emergence of Language” (paper presented at the Evolution of Language—Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference, Utrecht, 2010), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 61-62 (Kindle edition)
10. Katherine A. DeLong, Thomas P. Urbach, and Marta Kutas, “Probabilistic Word Pre-Activation During Language Comprehension Inferred from Electrical Brain Activity,” Nature Neuroscience 8, no. 8 (2005), quoted in Writing for Impact, p. 63-65 (Kindle edition)