How to Write for People Who Didn’t Grow Up in English

The game’s rigged.

The rules are inconsistent, and the tools are counter-intuitive.

There’s no intelligent design. No system that’s completely predictable. There’s hardly any logic, and the path is full of traps.

Welcome to the English language. It’s not an easy thing to break into.

But if you’ve got a good grip on it, you’ve got the power to make things easier when you write.Continue reading

How to Frame Numbers in Your Sales Copy

As a copywriter, I like working with words.

But as a crafty copywriter, I know that numbers have power. Some prices are attractive and some statistics are compelling.

So if you’re not thinking carefully about how you present the numbers in your sales copy, you’re missing out on a chance for some subtle and effortless persuasion.

Here are a few quick tricks to help you control your audience’s perceptions about the numbers you show them.

Divide big costs into chunks they can swallow

You’ve never seen a house for rent advertised at £9,000 a year.

You won’t find a car with a 60-month warranty, and you’ll never buy a pair of jeans with a two-fortnight return policy.

That’s because the value we attach to a number depends on its context. Breaking down the same total in different ways can lead to different perceptions about how much something really costs.

If you were to tell me that I’ve been spending more than £1,000 a year at Starbucks, I’d be horrified.

But if you told me I spend £3 a day on mochas? I wouldn’t react at all.

In reality, it’s the same amount of money. And this shift in context — and perceived value — is something you can put to good use in your sales copy.

In practice:

  • Don’t sell a fridge with a one-year warranty. Sell a fridge with a 12-month warranty. It looks and sounds bigger, and it “beats” a greater number of potential alternatives (like 9 months or 6 months).
  • Don’t slap thrifty parents with a one-week family holiday for £1,400. Ease them in gently with an offer of just £50 per person, per night. (For a family of four, it’s the same total price for a week.)
  • And if you’re pitching a software subscription at £90 a month, try to change their perspective. Let them know that it works out to less than £3 a day, and make sure you mention that it’s cheaper than a daily cup of coffee.

With a little careful partitioning, prices don’t have to seem painful at all.

Without lowering your prices or doing anything misleading, you’ve turned an intimidating cost into a reasonable investment. And that means you’ve probably just made a sale.

Control how their eyes judge the size

If you ever had a book of optical illusions as a kid, you’ll know that our brains are fully fallible when we take a first look.

It’s no different with numbers.

You might think a £1200 laptop is a bit pricey. But a £1,200 laptop seems even worse — and all we’ve done is add a comma to the same number.

Things get more out of proportion when you start counting the pennies. A £1200.00 laptop looks excessive, and a £1,200.00 one makes the eyes water.

How do these psychological tricks occur? There are a few explanations.

When you add in the decimal point and the pennies, the number takes up a bigger physical space.

At first glance, £1200.00 looks almost as big as £12,000. Even after the reader has corrected themselves by noticing the decimal point, that first impression sticks in the mind.

On top of that, those extra decimal places are filled by zeros. And we all know that numbers with lots of zeros are massive numbers.

With the comma, things get more complicated.

Every time we read, there’s a silent voice in our head that “sounds out” the text.

Most of us probably read £1200 as “twelve hundred pounds”. It’s short, it’s snappy, and it sounds a bit like we’re buying twelve winter coats. Not so scary.

But with £1,200, we start to read it as “one thousand, two hundred pounds”. It takes a long time to sound out this number in our head, and the full weight of its value gets recognised. This time, it sounds a bit like we’re making a mortgage payment — and the alarm bells start ringing.

In practice:

  • Add pennies and commas when you’re presenting a benefit to the customer: a saving, a reward or a free gift.

Save up to £2,000.00 on the listed price of your new car, and get £150.00 cashback!

  • Leave the pennies and commas out when you’re talking about costs to the customer: product prices, admin fees or insurance.

Get this laptop for only £1200 with optional insurance at just £9 a month.

Real numbers are relatable. Percentages are unreal

Humans love statistics. Even if they don’t always process them properly.

We’re used to dealing with real numbers: real objects in real groups in the real world.

Our brains need to do extra work to turn a percentage into a real-world concept. And this additional mental fatigue can end up skewing our judgement.

If your doctor recommended a serious operation that had a 10% mortality rate, you might feel anxious about going under the knife.

But if that same doctor told you that 1 out of 10 patients dies during the operation, you’d go home and start getting your affairs in order.

Or how about the fictional statistic claiming that 63,149 smokers out of every 10 million die before the age of 40? It sounds horrific.

On the other hand, 0.6% of smokers dying before 40 doesn’t sound that tragic at all.

In both of these examples, the real-world numbers and the percentages are equivalent.

The difference is that when we’re dealing with percentages, we don’t feel like we’re dealing with real people in real situations.

Percentages feel like a broad representation of the largest possible groups. A probability or a likelihood based on millions of other people.

With real numbers, your readers automatically start to identify with the people being represented. They can imagine a real group of individuals (like ten patients) and a portion of that group (one dead patient).

And since we’re all such relentlessly self-centred creatures by nature, your readers place themselves into the situation: they imagine that they’re the one out of the ten that will die.

Things are getting morbid. So let’s see how you can use this effect to your advantage.

In practice:

  • Use real numbers for the good stuff — when you want your audience to identify with the statistic. If you tell them that 8 out of 10 customers are happy with your product, they’ll think “I could be one of those 8 happy people”.
  • Use percentages for the nasty stuff — when you want your readers to feel like the statistic doesn’t relate to them. You’re better off saying that “3% of users experience undesirable side effects” rather than “3 out of 100 users experience undesirable side effects”.

Slip in below a round number

We all know how the basic rounding tricks work when it comes to pricing.

A burger selling for £9.99 is so close to £10 that it hardly matters. But our brains don’t see it as a £10 burger. Instead, we process the price as “£9 and some pennies” — which seems like a difference of almost 10%.

Now for the interesting part:

A study at MIT tested three different prices for the same item of women’s clothing: $34, $39 and $44. As you’d expect, they sold more of the same item at $39 than they did at $44.

But what you might not expect is that the $39 item also outsold the one at $34.

Is there something magical about the number 9? Maybe. Or it could be a case of wary shoppers second-guessing the seller.

When we see a product offered at $39, we know that the price has been manipulated. Instead of valuing the product at exactly $39, our brains really process it as “just under $40” — a small saving.

But when we see a product at $34, our brains might be doing something different. Instead of seeing the price as “quite a bit under $40”, we instead process it as “quite a bit over $30”.

We don’t see it as a reduction from a round number (40 – 1). We see it as a round number with a cheeky mark-up (30 + 4). And on a psychological level, it’s not attractive.

In practice:

  • For the most part, shave your prices so they sit just below a round number.

Fly direct to Athens for just £99.

  • Against your gut feeling, experiment with raising prices between round numbers up to a 9 (but use caution, and track the results).
  • If you have low moral standards, use taxes like VAT to give the appearance of a price that’s below a round number — or use a range of prices to the same effect.

Get a first-class flight to New York for only £950 (£1140 with VAT).

Rent one of our gorgeous holiday villas from just £95 – £160 a week.

Disconnect them from their money

There’s a reason why so many restaurants, bars and coffee shops remove the currency symbols from their menus.

In some cases, they just want to appear fancy and high-end. After all, the discussion of pounds and pennies is a vulgar endeavour, fit for the serfs and plebs.

But for the most part, it’s because it has a beneficial psychological effect on the consumer.

By removing the currency symbol from their prices, restaurant owners create a psychological separation between the number on the page and the number in their customers’ bank balances.

A prime cut of steak for £45 is exactly that: a product and a cost.

But a prime cut of steak for 45 is more abstract. It feels more like you’re reading a spreadsheet than a price list — just raw data without any real-world attachments.

It’s no different when it comes to smaller numbers.

When a coffee shop offers a latte for £4.90, you automatically fit that figure in with all the other numbers in your life. You realise that you’re spending about as much on a cup of coffee as you would on your daily commute, a supermarket steak or a month of Netflix.

But when they offer that same coffee for 4.9, you don’t make the same instant association. Without a currency symbol or a second decimal place, you might as well be reading a review score or a pressure gauge.

With that separation in place, your customers worry less about the pain of spending — and that means they end up spending more.

In practice:

  • If you’re in an industry that can do it without raising eyebrows, don’t include a currency symbol or the second decimal place.

2013 Australian Shiraz 9.4

16-oz Boneless Rib-Eye with roasted garlic butter 45

  • Use numerals to stress the value of a benefit, and use words to disconnect your customers from the numerical reality of small costs.

Sign up today to get access to 1000s of movies online.

Two cinema tickets for less than a tenner? Bargain.

Just don’t try to use words to disconnect your readers from the bigger costs. No restaurant owner should give the price of a bottle of champagne its full weight by listing it as “One hundred and eighty pounds”.

Now what?

You’ve got the knowledge. So start putting it to use.

These might seem like minor tweaks in theory. But to the average consumer, first impressions can be critical — especially when it comes to money.

When you present numbers in your sales copy, remember to:

  • Break down big costs into smaller, less painful sizes. Divide by time, people involved, or number of items — and try to make comparisons to daily costs that seem trivial (like a cup of coffee)
  • Puff up the benefits, and play down the costs. Include commas and decimal places when you want a number to look bigger, and remove them when you want a number to look smaller
  • Stick to real numbers when you want people to identify with a statistic. And when you’ve got something nasty to get across, use percentages to make your statistics less relatable.
  • If in doubt, use a few nines. Set your prices at £9.99, £39, or £1199. Make them look lower than they really are
  • Wherever you can, don’t let your audience connect your numbers with real-world money. Remove currency symbols, use just one decimal place — and experiment with avoiding numerals altogether.

How to Write Better Calls to Action for More Clicks and More Sales

Web designers can spend hours poring over their CTA (call to action) buttons.

Hours spent sweating through every little tweak of a CTA’s size, position and colour to eventually create the most clickable element of the page.

But once you’ve got your prospects looking, it’s what’s inside the box that counts.

We don’t all have the time or the means to put our CTAs through several rounds of rigorous experimentation. So if you’re not ready to start split testing (or you just need a solid foundation to get you going) it helps to have a few general pointers.

These tips might not lead you to a killer CTA on the first try. But they will help you to understand what works and what doesn’t – and they could help you create something that can beat your current control.

Use real-world verbs

The main purpose of a call to action (CTA) is to call the reader to some kind of action.

That may sound counter-intuitive – but stay with me.

For action, we need verbs. And if we want to keep resistance to a minimum (and we do) we need verbs that are short and simple.

Don’t invite your prospects to “Submit”, “Register” or “Continue”. These verbs are robotic and stiff, and their stilted formality is a turn-off for the average person.

Instead, encourage your visitors to Get, Try or Start – everyday verbs that real people would actually use to generate an action from others.

Point Blank SEO‘s offer of a free guide to link building is a perfect example of using CTA text that’s simple, real and direct.

Two words, two syllables, five letters: GET IT.

Be specific and numeric

If you want to stand out against the mess of empty promises and overdriven hyperbole that’s littered around the internet, put something concrete in your offer.

Your visitors know that you can’t argue your way around a number. They know you’re more accountable when you make a specific claim, and that gives your CTA credibility.

Realistically, you wouldn’t dare to promise every visitor a 20% boost in sales, traffic or efficiency: there are just too many variables to make a claim like that stand up to scrutiny.

But there are still plenty of ways to include honest numbers to add credibility and value.

You might invite your prospects to “Get your free 50-page white paper” or to “Join more than 40,000 subscribers”.

Compare these solid, numeric offers with “Get your free white paper” and “Join our other subscribers” – the difference in perceived value should be clear.

Just look at Amazon Prime‘s CTA.

They didn’t specify the length of their free trial by accident. They did it because a visitor who knows the definite value of the offer before they click can make their decision to commit at an earlier stage – and also because “a month of free TV” is a lot more enticing than “some free TV”.

Be human

Numbers are great. But when used correctly, emotion and personality can be just as powerful.

People like people. And you want people to like your business.

The solution? Make your business more like a person.

Instead of a “Book a consultation” button, try the more casual and reassuring “Talk to us”.

Rather than asking your visitors to “Begin a free trial”, get them to “Try us for free”.

But remember to stay sensible. While Madewell‘s “Make ‘Em Yours” is a great example of a cute and personable CTA for a fashion retailer, it’s probably not the sort of tone you should aim for if you need to sell dialysis machines or coffins.

Use the voice of the reader

Every good copywriting guide out there starts by telling you to write in the second person (“you”).

It’s useful advice, and it applies in a huge number of cases.

But with CTAs, choosing the right personal pronoun isn’t obvious.

According to Unbounce’s split testing, a CTA that uses “your” results in nearly 25% fewer conversions than one that uses “my”.

In another test, they found that using “my” in the CTA left them with a 90% increase in click-through rates.

So why do so many landing pages rely exclusively on the second person throughout their sales pitch, only to switch to the first person at the critical moment?

It could be because the first person is far less commanding.

In the main body of a landing page’s text, the use of the second person is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The bulk of a good landing page is about the benefits you’ll gain or what you can achieve – it doesn’t tell you what to do.

Once the visitor reads down to the CTA, the next step is up to them. They’ve been passively reading and absorbing information that’s been fed to them throughout the pitch, and now there’s a switch where they’re suddenly called to action. When a landing page uses the second person during this switch, the reader’s mind can naturally start to resist the sudden commandment.

“Start your free trial” is a little bit oppressive. “Start my free trial” is an Inception-like implant into the mind of the reader.

The silent reading voice in their head has already uttered the words, and those words have a hypnotic effect. It feels a bit like you’ve actually said the words of your own volition – just as you would if you’d made the decision by yourself.

This self-hypnosis is even more apparent when you see landing pages with a cheeky dual-option CTA.

You know the ones we’re talking about. They usually appear in a pop-up window as you try to make an escape back to Google.

The pop-up states the offer, and presents you with two options – usually something like “Yes, I want 50% off my subscription” versus “No, I don’t like saving money”.

In these cases, the self-hypnotic effect isn’t subtle. If you want to leave, you’ll need to click a button that asserts a position you don’t agree with. That creates a mismatch between what you want (to retreat to Google) and what the pop-up says you want (to avoid saving money).

Of course, it’s an attempt at persuasion that’s completely transparent to all of us. But if the cheeky dual-option CTA can make the average person pause for a moment, it might be enough to sway someone who was already on the fence to reconsider their choice.

Support your CTA with micro copy

One other way to sway visitors who are close to the tipping point is by propping up your CTA with a few last-minute bits of information.

There are plenty of different things you can add in as micro copy, as long as you remember to be brief and unobtrusive. You could try:

  • Offering reassurance: “Don’t worry. Your data will be kept secure.”
  • Overcoming objections: “You can cancel at any time and pay nothing.”
  • Adding social proof: “Join 50,000 happy subscribers.”
  • Injecting a little personality: “Go on – it’s free.”

Basecamp’s CTA is a great example of micro copy that combines social proof with numerical credibility – exactly 5,038 businesses have signed up in the last week, and they want to make sure you know about it at the crucial moment of decision.

Case closed?

Of course not.

There are hundreds of different ways you can tweak your CTA – both verbally and graphically. And if you want to be sure you’re presenting your offer in the most successful way, you’ll need countless rounds of testing and adjusting to find the right balance of factors for your particular audience, product and website design.

But if you just need a few quick and easy general rules to get you started, try to keep these in mind:

  • Stick to simple, natural words. Avoid ugly words like “register” and “submit”, and replace them with colloquial words like “start” and “try”.
  • Keep your offers specific and concrete. When it makes sense, include honest numbers.
  • Be personable and reassuring. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice your so-called “professional tone” if it means a measurable improvement in clicks.
  • Choose your perspective carefully. Sometimes a first-person CTA works best – but not always. Test both perspectives and let the results decide.
  • Take advantage of the last few moments. Whether your micro copy overcomes their objections or adds social proof, make sure your sales pitch has the last word.