One of the biggest mistakes writers make when developing persuasive copy that uses data to support its points is believing that raw numbers and statistics by themselves are enough to convince the reader about their claims. The problem is that, by themselves, numbers and statistics don’t stand out to the reader. In order for them to have an emotional impact, your numbers need to be supported with analogies that humanize your statistics and give your figures narrative.
When writing copy, we tend to behave as if the people reading our material will be using rational thought and high-level analysis to consider our marketing pitch. Unfortunately this is not how it actually happens in reality. The problem is that we use different parts of our brain when we’re writing a marketing message compared to when we’re reading one. These two parts of the brain “speak different languages” from each other, but we write copy as if they speak the same one. This leads to a disconnect between the reader and the message and causes the copy to have a significantly reduced impact, particularly when numbers and statistics are involved.
The part of the brain we use when writing copy is the neocortex. It’s the more evolved part of the brain that is responsible for complex thought, analysis, and logic. This is the part of the brain that knows how to make sense of numbers and statistics. The problem is that there is another part of the brain that acts as the gatekeeper to the neocortex, and if your message doesn’t make it past this roadblock, it won’t matter how impressive your numbers are because they will never reach the neocortex for analysis.
The second part of the brain, the one that determines whether or not your message is sent to the neocortex or ignored, is called the brain stem. This is the oldest part of the brain and controls our most primal emotions, like our fight or flight response and our desires. It doesn’t have the capacity for advanced thought like the neocortex though, and unfortunately for copywriters all information that enters the brain has to pass through the brain stem in order to access the neocortex.
Because our brains don’t have the capacity to examine and analyze every moment, stimulus, and interaction we have each day, the brain stem is responsible for filtering out as much information as possible so that only the most important pieces reach the neocortex for analysis and it doesn’t become overwhelmed. The way the brain stem goes about this is by looking for differences and ignoring anything that isn’t new to our experience.
Anything that is not different from what our brain expects to see or is used to encountering is ignored by the brain stem. This is why you won’t notice the poster that’s been hanging on your wall for years until you take it down one day to clean it. All of a sudden when you walk into that room there’s a blank spot on the wall where the poster used to be, and because that’s different from what you were expecting your brain stem takes notice. It will be important to note that another word for when reality is different from our expectations is surprising.
So now that you know how the brain processes your marketing copy, let’s see what happens to a message that’s strictly based on statistics, and then what happens when you humanize it using analogies.
One of the case studies in the book Made to Stick is about a news story created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and what it discovered about the fat content of movie popcorn. A medium-sized bag of popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fat, while the USDA recommends at most 20. Simply sharing these facts with people clearly wouldn’t be surprising to a person’s brain stem though, which means it would be ignored and never make it to the neocortex for analysis.
First of all, there’s no context for 37 grams of fat in this message, besides the USDA recommendation. Sure you know it’s more than the government suggests we eat, but for all you know it’s no worse than cookies, or ice cream, or bacon, or any other fatty food. Even if you tried to add a visual to this comparison and showed a bar graph where the amount of saturated fat in popcorn was nearly twice as tall as the USDA recommendation, our brains see graphs like that all the time and once again the brainstem wouldn’t notice anything surprising that would trigger it to send the message up to the neocortex.
So, how can you surprise the brain stem with these statistics and make it send the message to the neocortex where it can be fully analyzed and understood? You humanize it with an analogy. The analogy CSPI used was:
“A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!”
That will get your brain stem to take notice. Comparing one little bag of popcorn to a laundry list of some of the most fatty and unhealthy foods is a dramatic departure from what your brain stem would have expected. This difference between expectation and reality causes surprise, and the message is passed up to the neocortex where the reader can then bring their higher-order thinking processes into effect and make a decision to avoid movie popcorn or at least choose to have theirs with no butter moving forward.
So remember, whenever you are going to be presenting numbers or statistics, include a surprising analogy to make sure that your message reaches the right part of your audiences’ brain for processing that message. Otherwise your copy won’t have nearly the impact that it could, and you won’t get the results you were hoping for.
Share one of your own surprising statistics, along with an analogy, in the comments!
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