How to Write Better Headlines by Ripping Off Every Book Ever

Creativity is hard. And trying to be original just makes everything worse.

So if you’re having trouble creating a fiery headline, just do what everyone else does:

Plunder and pillage from every available source.

Authors and editors spend days agonising over the titles of their books. And you can cash in on their misery with a quick bit of thievery.

Let’s take a look at a few classic gems and see why they work:

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

A headline in the form of a question does a lot of the work for you.

On a sub-conscious level, your readers are already considering the possible answers – which means they’re already engaging in the topic before they’ve read the first line of your content (or even clicked through to the page).

But Philip K. Dick’s influential novel (the one that inspired Blade Runner) is doing a whole lot more than that.

In just six words, he’s managed to:

  • Ask an intriguing question
  • Give us specific hints about the content of the book (androids and their psychological behaviour)
  • And introduce an intriguing new concept (artificial dreams).

And added together, these things create some serious interest.

So how can you bring this to your own headlines?

It’s not enough to just rearrange a normal headline into the form of a question. You need to spice things up.

You need to ask a question that prods their imagination. An open question with no easy answer – a question that demands that they read on if they want to uncover a secret.

Because if you present your readers with a question that has an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, that’s the end of it. Before they’ve clicked on your content or even thought about whether they want to read more, they’ve resolved the issue – they don’t need any more from you.

2. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

If I made a list of titles I never thought I’d see on a published book, this would be somewhere on that list.

Just like the story of the novel itself, the title is a mash-up. It’s the marriage of two completely opposite genres and settings, and this disparity creates something truly unique and attention-grabbing.

Even if you hate both tropes – period dramas and zombie attacks – it’s hard not to be intrigued by the wackiness of two ideas that should never have been pushed together.

If you’ve never heard of this book, I bet you’re already looking it up. You’re either outraged, incredulous, amused, or curious. And if you can evoke any or all of those reactions towards your own content, you can call that a success.

So how can you replicate it?

That’s simple. Take whatever topic you’re writing about, and mash it up with something else that doesn’t seem connected:

  • ‘How Accounting Software Saved My Marriage’
  • ‘5 Lessons in People Management from Game of Thrones
  • ‘Why Every CEO Needs Ice Cream at Their Board Meetings’.

But there’s one condition here:

You need to respect your audience. If you’re going to marry two estranged concepts to make an attractive headline, you need to make sure your content actually follows through on that promise.

It doesn’t have to become the entire thrust of your message – but at some point, you’re going to have to show your readers exactly how accounting software saved your marriage.

3. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

We’ve all heard of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.

So when we see a title that’s the mirror image of an established phrase, we’re intrigued and amused. We’re drawn in by the familiarity of the construction – but we’re hooked by the twist on a classic set of words.

You might think this is a bit of a cheap ploy: piggybacking on the fame of a book title that you’ve appropriated for your own gains.

And there’s some truth in that. But in reality, everything ‘original’ is a modification or combination of things that have gone before. It just so happens that this method is particularly transparent.

If you’re able to twist a well-known title into something funny or surprising, most people will appreciate the parody. You’re giving them a chance to participate in the collusion, and that participation can act as a powerful hook on its own.

So how do we make it work?

You already know how it works. Take a well-known title (or slogan or quotation) and flip it around: turn it upside down to make it fit your own agenda. That could mean:

  • A negation – ‘Why the Customer Isn’t Always Right’
  • A modification – ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Taxes (But Were Afraid to Ask)’
  • Or an opposite – ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Useless People’.

The closer your new twisted title is to the original, the better. But the difference needs to be clear (as in the ‘How to Lose Friends’ example) – and it needs to make sense (would anyone really be afraid to ask questions about taxes?).

4. A Clockwork Orange

If you didn’t have a few curious questions when you first saw this book title, you’re probably a clockwork person yourself.

Anthony Burgess hasn’t just created a piece of intriguing imagery. He’s brought together two unrelated concepts in a new and unique way to create something totally original (just like the ‘electric sheep’ and ‘artificial dreams’ in the example above).

And before you’ve opened the first page of the novel, you already know things are about to get weird.

So how can you steal it?

In the content world, a three-word title that consists of a single image probably isn’t going to get you the attention you want. It’s too abstract and minimal for the audience and interests you’re trying to target.

But if you can weave something like this into one of your more everyday titles, you can create the kind of headline that grips a visitor’s eyes and doesn’t let go.

You could try:

  • ‘Do You Have a Creep Nose Working in Your Company?’
  • ‘How to Turn Your Marketing Campaign into a Wiry Wheel
  • ‘Looking for More Clients? You Need to Increase Your Vein Range

I don’t know what any of these mean. But don’t they sound interesting? Wouldn’t you want to click on a piece of content that promised an explanation of one of these new terms?

Even though I know these examples are nonsense pairings of words, I’m intrigued. The gears are in motion, and I think I already have an idea in my mind of what kind of person a ‘Creep Nose’ might be.

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Eggers’ memoir is – I hope – titled with a sense of humour.

It’s self-referential. It breaks the fourth wall. But besides its silliness, it’s also shamelessly selling itself.

It’s a story about a man looking after his younger brother after his parents die of cancer. So it’s probably heartbreaking. And it’s a book that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize – so it might not be a stretch to call it a work of genius.

But regardless of what you think of the book, that’s a title that demands attention. And it’s a great example of the kind of shameless self-promotion that you can bring to your own content headlines.

So how can we use it?

It’s simple:

Don’t settle for the mundane. Add a little excitement to your headlines. And if you’re feeling cheeky, inject some exaggeration and hyperbole along with it. Instead of going straight to your default headline (like ’10 Tricks to Help You Get More Sales’) you could try:

  • ‘The Only Guide to Closing Deals You’ll Ever Need’
  • ‘The Most Exhaustive Compendium of Sales Tricks on the Internet’
  • ’10 Industry Secrets from Millionaire Salesmen They Begged Us Not to Reveal’

But you need to be careful. As these examples show, it’s easy to start creating headlines that border on the ludicrous. You need to maintain a healthy level of dignity and respect for your audience – you don’t want your professional website to start sounding like tabloid clickbait.

Does any of it really matter?

Book authors spend a lot of time on their headlines. And you should too.

Just like a book-lover perusing the shelves in Waterstones, the people you want to attract are browsing through social media feeds (or scrolling through the first page of Google).

They’re overwhelmed with options and offers of articles and blog posts to read. And that little extra bit of hard work spent spicing up your headlines can mean the difference between a headline that’s skipped and a headline that gets clicks.

Why Is It So Hard for People to Write in Plain English?

People are proud of their pomposity.

I’m already proud of that first sentence – even though I know it might put some readers off.

And if I’m being honest, it’s fun to use rare words.

You might think I’m being imperious. Or haughty.

You might think I’m a bombastic braggart whose orotund ostentation belies his naïve and narcissistic nature.

And I wouldn’t blame you. But know this:

People do it all the time. And it doesn’t help anyone – including themselves.

Whatever you’re writing or saying, there’s always a simple way to go about it.

And the first step towards making things simple is understanding why we love to make things hard.

Shaking off the academic rigour

If you’ve ever had to read an academic essay or a thesis, you’ll know just how horrible that experience is.

I wrote a few pompous student essays myself, once upon a time. And when I read them now, I don’t know who I was trying to impress.

Except I do know: I was definitely trying to impress the teachers and professors.

(Or I was trying to trick them into giving me a higher grade.)

Just like with any business jargon you’ll find today, students and teachers use complex words and phrases as a set of shortcuts.

If they tried to break everything down into plain English, it would take them hundreds of words just to get through a few sentences.

But there’s also a definite element of camouflage involved:

Students and pupils who are unsure of what they’re saying can use complex language to try and hide their lack of clarity.

And when those same people start working in businesses, they don’t usually move on from that student mindset. They keep on using the same sort of jargon for the rest of their lives.

They use the kinds of complex language that they hope makes their business look more ‘professional’ – even if it makes their message harder to understand.

Here’s a quick example that I managed to dig up from my first year as a philosophy student (with the pompous phrasing in bold):

It is apparent that every action or effect in nature is preceded by a connected cause. This necessity, and the mind’s natural inclination to infer between cause and effect, suggests a categorical incompatibility with the idea of free will. If our will is free, we make our own choices and lead our own lives. But it is undeniable that there is a uniformity in human actions that makes many events predictable based upon prior circumstances, even when ‘chosen freely’.”

What a load of rubbish.

Here’s how it looks in plain English:

“We all believe that everything that happens has a cause.

But if we can find a cause in the past for everything that happens, it’s hard to explain how we also have free will.

Everyone feels like they have free will. And everyone feels like they make their own choices in life.

But we can often predict what others will do by understanding their personalities and the experiences they’ve had – and these are already set in place by the time we make a choice.

So if our ‘choices’ rely on things that happened in the past, that means we make choices based on things we can’t control.

And that means we’re not really choosing freely.”

It’s a little longer. But it’s a lot more pleasant.

When you saw it in its first form – full of pretentious words and overly complex phrases – you might have assumed that it was saying something profound.

But when you see it laid out in plain English, you realise that it’s not really saying anything revolutionary.

Without changing the meaning of the content, it’s gone from a 50 on the Flesh-Kincaid reading ease score to an 80. That’s like taking a Financial Times article and turning it into a passage from Harry Potter.

Would this sort of language and phrasing go down well if it were submitted as a university paper?

I can’t say for sure.

But I can say with confidence that this kind of jargon-deconstruction can work wonders for a business that wants to get its message out to the general public.

So in which manner ought we to act so as to consequently curtail our dependence on such perplexing communication?

I’d love to say that it’s easy.

But it’s hard to change habits that have been reinforced for years.

Those pompous essays get people good grades.

And those highfalutin cover letters and CVs get people into good jobs.

Your pretentious language has helped you to achieve your earliest goals. And that can make it even harder to learn to let go of it.

So all you can do is remember this:

You’ve already got your qualifications and your job – so you don’t need to keep trying to show people how huge your brain is.

You’re in the real world now. And the things you write only have one goal:

Putting ideas into people’s minds.

In your day-to-day job, you write things so that you can inform, instruct, persuade, or convince the people you work with and the people you work for.

Sometimes (depending on your audience) it might be useful to throw in a few fancy words to impress.

But for the most part, you’re writing for people who just want to understand what you’re saying.

They want your information to help them achieve their own personal goals.

So if you can give it to them in a plain and simple way, they’ll be grateful. And everyone will be able to achieve more.

Learning from your peers

If you’ve spent most of your career as an employee inside a big company, you’re probably overflowing with business jargon.

You’ve read countless reports and emails, sat through countless meetings, and attended countless training sessions and seminars.

When every person above you and around you is using the same sort of language, you start to use it too.

And I don’t blame you.

Everyone adapts to their surroundings: we all naturally try to fit in with the people around us.

But when you spend too much time with one crowd, it’s easy to forget that most people don’t speak and write that way.

“It’s critical that we ensure we’re identifying the stakeholders before undertaking any initiative,” says the office manager. “So for every new project, I want you to draw up a document enumerating those impacted, and distribute it amongst your colleagues.”

“What?” says the new kid, looking up from his notes.

The manager sighs, and tries again.

“Before we start any project, we need to know about the people that project will affect. So for every new project, I want you to write a list of those people, and send it to the team.”

“Oh,” says the new kid. “I can do that.”

You can see why this is a problem.

But the worst part isn’t during the exchange between managers and their teams.

It’s when this convoluted phrasing starts to bleed out beyond the grey walls of the meeting room.

Work buddies who normally chat by the water cooler start to use this dense language in their emails with each other.

They then start to use it when they email their suppliers and their clients.

And worst of all: they start to use it in their company blog posts, on the website’s home page, and in their social media marketing messages.

Their poor customers, who just want to read and understand, now have to sift through a wall of impenetrable industry jargon to get to the basic information they’re looking for.

All because a few people in that company like to use fancy words for no good reason.

So how can you fix it?

You’ll be happy to hear that this one really is easy:

Before you write anything – an email, a blog post, a presentation, or a set of instructions – you need to spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re writing and who it’s for.

Think back to your first week on the job, and all the ridiculous new words that threw you off when you first saw or heard them.

Then strip them from your vocabulary (or save them for the times when no other word can replace them).

Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is start writing as if you’re one human being talking to another human being.

It’s so crazy it just might work.

Leaning on your crutches

There’s a curious dilemma when it comes to choosing between complicated language and plain English:

Complicated language is harder to read, but it’s easier to write (if it’s available to you).

And plain English is easier to read, but harder to write (even though it’s available to everyone).


Because convoluted phrasing is the default setting for our poor modern brains.

Jargon and buzzwords are shortcuts to ideas that we’re used to seeing in our professional spheres. And longer words usually point to a complicated concept more efficiently than a bunch of short ones.

That means it takes time and effort to reduce a message down to plain and simple language.

And it takes even more time and effort to say the same thing simply without bloating your message with too many extra words.

For anyone who writes often, this isn’t really new information.

You can ask a scientist:

“I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.”

– Benjamin Franklin, 1750

Or a philosopher:

“I will not deny, but possibly it might be reduced to a narrower compass than it is … But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy to make it shorter.”

 – John Locke, 1690

Or even a President of the United States:

“That depends on the length of the speech. If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

 – Woodrow Wilson, 1918

Since our advanced (lazy) human brains have evolved to complete tasks by taking the most efficient path, we end up relying on long and complicated language – regardless of who our audience is or how it might affect them.

So what’s the fix?

It takes two people for successful communication to happen.

But as the creator of a message, the bulk of the responsibility lies with you.

So don’t be lazy: look beyond the path of least resistance.

Look for the path that has the least resistance for your audience, and find a compromise somewhere between them and you.

(A compromise which hopefully lies in the reader’s favour.)

Are you of the opinion that you’re currently qualified to deliver accessible communication to your most important stakeholders without obscuring your intended meaning?


No problem.

I’m right here.

5 Opening Hooks from Fiction You Can Totally Steal for Your Content

They’re going to ignore you.

A thousand careful words, sculpted from the deepest roots of your hard-won experience and wisdom.

All wasted, of course – because you didn’t know how to hook ’em.

I’m not going to regurgitate statistics about the first few seconds. And I’m not going to waffle on about how first impressions count.

Because the reality is much simpler than that:

People just aren’t that interested in reading other people’s stuff.

You need something that grabs them from the first line. You need something that says ‘Hey. This is worth it. Keep going and you’ll see.’

And no one knows this better than fiction authors.

They spend entire careers being routinely ignored and rejected – by literary agents, magazines, publishers, and the millions of readers who have thousands of other things to read.

So if anyone knows how to grab people by the eyelids, it’s fiction writers.

Here are 5 of the simplest ways they do it:

1. Start with a juicy bit

‘They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chawk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. Its core was a kilogram of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.’

Count Zero, William Gibson

I have a friend whose dad was a fiction author. And he used to say this:

No one starts eating a slice of cake at the crust. They go straight to the middle to get the best part first.

In academic circles, they call it starting in media res (‘into the middle of things’). And in the case of Count Zero, William Gibson doesn’t muck about.

Before you’ve finished the third sentence, there’s already a kamikaze cyborg dog hunting down the story’s hero and blowing him to pieces.

If that doesn’t make you want to read more, I don’t know what will.

So what’s the lesson?

When you’re writing a sales page or an article, there’ll never be anything as exciting as a kamikaze cyborg.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t skip most of the exposition and jump straight into something interesting.

There is something interesting in your content at some point, right?

Good. Now put it front and centre – why were you making people work for it?

Forget the meek and humble introduction.

Forget the bit where you welcome your visitors, and forget the bit where you lay down context like a teenager writing a padded-out essay.

Cut straight to the chase, and throw your readers into the action from the very first sentence.

Less of this:

‘In recent years, many smartphone users have begun to move away from established premium products (like the iPhone) towards more affordable alternatives from overseas – such as the latest offerings from Chinese manufacturers, Huawei.’

And more of this:

‘We all saw it coming. The iPhone is dead.

But we never thought Huawei would be the ones holding the pillow.’

2. Start with a twist

‘It was love at first sight.

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

There’s a reason why people get sick of reading blog posts and web pages.

They’re predictable and formulaic – so much so, that you could probably guess the second sentence after reading the first few words of the opening line.

With Catch-22, Joseph Heller starts with something simple, mundane and cliché. But by the second line, he’s already completely subverted our expectations.

It wouldn’t work today, of course. There’s nothing unusual about men falling in love.

But back in 1962, that would have been a jarring juxtaposition to start a mainstream novel with. And you can apply the same theory to your own content.

How does it work?

It’s simple.

Except it’s not. (What a twist!)

But really, it is.

Start with a straightforward first line that puts your readers into one mindset.

And then follow it up with something that’s completely at odds with that mindset:

‘Looking for a web designer?

You’ve come to the wrong place.

Our customisable site builder gives you the power to create your own unique website – even if you have no idea what you’re doing.’

3. Start with a weird word

‘Limp, the body of Gorrister hung from the pink palette; unsupported – hanging high above us in the computer chamber; and it did not shiver in the chill, oily breeze that blew eternally through the main cavern.’

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison

Just try and find another short story or novel that starts with the word ‘limp’.

Go on, I’ll wait.

We’re so used to the conventions of speech and narrative that we expect any piece of writing (whether it’s fiction or marketing) to start off with words and phrases like these:

  • When I
  • There’s a
  • It was a
  • Back in the

When you start with basic phrases like these, you’re already nestling your readers into a familiar and comfortable position.

Sometimes that’s a good thing: it can help to ease your readers in and gently set the scene.

But when every blog post starts in the same predictable way, their minds begin to wander, and they lose interest.

How can we make it work?

If you try to start every bit of content by shoehorning in a word like ‘limp’, it’s going to feel forced.

Instead, you can try to work a spicy word in at some point during the first sentence. Like this:

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

‘When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’

The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R Tolkien

‘The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.’

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

These unexpected words aren’t just there to add artistic flavour. They shock your reader out of their complacency.

They force your reader to wake up and pay attention, and they hint at more to come: more spicy phrasing, more of your lively tone of voice, and more of your unusual perspective on things.

4. Start with a story

‘Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.’

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

Most people have limited attention spans.

(Or it could just be that your content is boring.)

Either way, they won’t usually want to plough through your 2,000-word narrative to get a satisfactory conclusion to the topic.

They’ll use your opening lines as a taster to see whether it’s worth reading more. So if you want to give them a warm, fuzzy feeling before they give up, you need to give them a pay-off as quickly as you can.

How does it work?

It’s simple:

Just take a shortcut to an early conclusion.

By starting off a blog post or an article with a mini-story, you can give your readers some scene-setting intrigue – and a satisfying resolution – in just a few short lines.

Before they’ve had a chance to get bored, they’re already enthralled. And they’ll be far more likely to give the rest of your article a chance.

You’ll have seen this technique in newspapers and journals plenty of times.

An article about immigration starts with the plight of one particular family of refugees. Or a piece about prison injustice begins with the tale of one particular mistreated prisoner.

It needs to be brief, and it needs to be instantly compelling. There’s no point aiming for immediate satisfaction if you let your introduction stretch to cover half of your article.

5. Start with deliberate mystery

‘The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.’

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

A tower that shouldn’t be there? That needs some explaining.

And how are we going to get that explanation?

By reading further, of course.

Deliberate obscurity has been a staple of suspense in books and films for decades. But it needs to be handled with care.

If it’s too heavy-handed, the attempt at manipulation becomes obvious. And if it’s too subtle, there’ll be no sense of mystery imparted.

Annihilation handles this perfectly. The mysterious clause (‘which was not supposed to be there’) is tucked into the sentence as an aside – as if it’s a throwaway addition to the main thrust of the sentence.

You don’t have time to stop and think about it, because you’re already reading the rest of the sentence.

But the seed has been planted, and it’s had an effect.

So how can you use this?

There are plenty of different ways to add a little intrigue to your opener. You could try:

  • Playing the pronoun game – (‘She walks onto the seminar stage with an arrogant confidence. She’s smiling, but we all know she’s just been forced to resign.’)
  • Making a bold statement, and delaying the explanation – (‘If you’re an employee anywhere, you’re getting ripped off. You might think that sounds dramatic, but…’)
  • Making an enticing promise that you’ll get to later – (‘I can save your business thousands of pounds a month. Now, you’re probably wondering…’)

Are these cheap tactics? Probably.

Do they work? Definitely.

The important part (just like with the Annihilation example above) is that you’re able to handle them carefully.

You need to make it feel natural, and you need to be able to hold your reader’s attention with the rest of your message until you finally reveal the answer to the mystery you’re dangling before them.

Ready for a new beginning?

The first few lines of any piece of writing are crucial.

And with a few of these tricks, it’s easy to start hooking more readers from the first few words.

But if you don’t have the time (or the patience) to craft the kinds of content that gets people reading, don’t worry:

Your friendly neighbourhood copywriter is ready and waiting to help.

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.

5 Dirty Copywriting Tricks for Seedy Marketers

What’s the one thing shady salespeople and their hapless victims have in common?

The stink of desperation.

There are loads of honest marketers out there, carefully presenting products in the best light to attract attention, develop interest and make a sale to the right people at the right price.

There are also a few nasty eggs, promising the sky while they sell you blue paint.

And somewhere in the vast space between, there are otherwise decent copywriters who sometimes drop in a dirty trick or two.

If you spot one or two of these red flags in a sales letter, email or landing page, be cautious.

If you see all of them in one place, run. Or stick around to grab a few cheap laughs.

1. “Make up to £100 an hour or more!”

Not to be confused with the stay-at-home mum who makes “up to £100 an hour from home”, this all-encompassing claim promises everything and nothing at the same time.

Let’s break it down.

You could make less than £100 an hour. You could make £100 an hour. Or you could make more than £100 an hour.

In effect, you could make any amount of money, from nothing to infinity. But doesn’t £100 an hour sound like a nice wage?

The reader’s eye rolls over these two innocuous modifiers (“up to” and “or more”) and sticks to the tantalising prospect of a £100 an hour reward. The copywriter has made no concrete promise, but they’ve still managed to cement the idea that you’ll be earning a hefty salary.

If you see this kind of weaselly wording on a sales page, take it at its literal meaning:

You might earn something. Maybe.

2. “Only £29! (Actual value £299)”

If you’re running a genuine, verifiable discount, then I apologise. This isn’t about you.

But if you’re attaching arbitrary price tags to your products or services to artificially inflate their perceived value — stop it.

Your 16-page e-book is not worth £299. It never was, and crossing out the price tag with a strikethrough font won’t erase your transparent deception, nor the thick guilt that keeps you awake at night.

In some cases, you might see a respectable marketer compare their £29 e-book to a £299 seat in their workshop.

Don’t be fooled. If their e-book were as valuable as a place at their seminar, they’d be selling their digital download at a price close to its value, raking in the same cash without having to leave their house.

3. “For a limited time only!”

Scarcity is a useful situation to convey in marketing.

Why else would festival organisers waste advertising space on posters that have “sold out” stamps printed across their Friday line-ups?

Because it creates a sense of urgency and a fear of missing out that sells more tickets for the Saturday show.

Similarly, DFS loves to tell you that their January sales “must end Friday”. If you want a chaise longue at 50% off, you’ll need to act quickly — and this urgency pulls in more punters than a leisurely sale that drags on for months.

But if you’re going to present a limited offer, at least make it a little bit credible.

I’ve seen countdown timers that reset after hitting zero, seminars that always have exactly ten spots left, and time-limited offers that don’t even bother to specify what the limit is or why it’s there.

Don’t just throw in a line about scarcity to shake things up: respect your audience enough to make your claims worthy of their trust.

Because if we want to get pedantic, every offer ever made is limited.

Order now before the sun consumes us all.

4. “Our money-making system”

Any decent copywriter will tell you that concrete specifics work better than vague ambiguities.

So when you come across a sales pitch that doesn’t dare go any deeper than loose references to their products, systems and processes, beware.

It’s a bit like those websites that can’t get past their dedication to the painfully obscure “solution”. Except instead of just being lazy and pompous, a sales pitch talking about “systems” is usually a lot more concerning.

If the marketer won’t tell you what sort of system they’re selling, then they probably have:

  • nothing worth calling a system
  • a system that won’t bear scrutiny
  • a system that’s already obvious to the average person
  • or a system that’s going to get you in trouble.

On the rare occasions that these benevolent millionaires deign to shine a light on one of their top-secret methods, we usually end up wishing we had been left in the dark.

One money-making system suggested that you go out and wash 11 cars a day for £10 a pop. Another recommended that you keep doubling your money on either red or black until you win at higher stakes to recoup your earlier losses.

If you want to be vague in order to build suspense and keep people reading, that’s fine. But there needs to be a payoff where you let a few solid details out of the bag.

Don’t make me read through 3,000 words of copy just to tell me to win at gambling.

5. “Our risk-free, 30-day money-back guarantee!”

If you’re a known marketer with an accepted track record who’s almost certainly sitting on buckets of cash, your money-back guarantee might carry some weight with your cautious readers.

But if you’re promising a risk-free transaction from behind a slapdash home page littered with yellow-highlighted text and flashing arrows, we can’t be blamed for being a little wary.

Some of the worst offenders will have a disclaimer in the small print. You’ll get your money back, after they’ve subtracted a “modest” administration fee of £50.

That’s not risk-free. That’s you risking £50.

In an ingenious twist, these marketers have turned their promise of a risk-free purchase for you into a risk-free sale for them. If you’re satisfied, they win. If you’re not satisfied, they still win.

But don’t worry. You’re also protected by a low-resolution seal of quality, coloured in gold and lifted straight from Clip Art.

Please. Even the promise on a £20 note isn’t guaranteed.

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.