People’s emotions influence what they buy and other decisions they make. Most people believe their decisions are based on rational analysis of the available alternatives. Therefore, most messaging is based on features and benefits, but emotions greatly influence and even determine peoples’ choices, according to market research. This conclusion applies to decisions by everyone, including consumers, employees, business decision makers and other stakeholders. In view of this, you need to know how to use more emotional words in your messages as an essential third resource along with features and benefits.
Sources in the past two decades consistently reinforce the importance of emotions in messaging:
Peter Murray also noted:
“…for consumers, perhaps the most important characteristic of emotions is that they push us toward action. In response to emotion, humans are compelled to do something. In a physical confrontation, fear forces us to choose between fight or flight to ensure our self-preservation. In our daily social confrontations, insecurity may cause us to buy the latest iPhone to support our positive self-identity.”
Research reported by psychologist Dr Jeremy Dean in his 2021 article, “How many emotions are there?” found that humans have only four basic emotions: happy, sad, fear/surprise and disgust/anger. These findings were based on the facial expressions of males and females. Obviously, people have many other emotions as well, but these four are considered the primary ones, on which all others have evolved.
In view of these findings, you need to decide which fundamental emotion you will seek to inspire from your target audience. This will give you the most effective insights for copywriting, graphics, photos, music, etc.
There are two broad types of emotional cues that can be used to influence an audience: positive and negative. While each serves a specific purpose, they are often used together in the same campaigns, especially when they can be used to tell a story. The most common emotional triggers are discussed in a 2020 VCITA article:
Positive emotional triggers use words, images, and other media in their campaigns to trigger emotions like joy, surprise, laughter and desire. Subtler variations on this theme might be competence, serenity, trust, or excitement. These types of campaigns point to the end result of buying a product or service, and are the easiest type to implement.
Negative emotional triggers usually target emotions like frustration, anxiety, and sadness. While it may seem counterintuitive to intentionally trigger these emotions, they can be powerful drivers of action if your product or service offers a solution to them. These campaigns focus on identifying the problem a client faces, and empathizing with the feelings associated with it. When using negative emotional triggers, it’s important not to be too heavy handed, since triggering intensely negative emotions runs the risk of being off-putting or even unethical.
Most people believe that the choices they make result from a rational analysis of available alternatives. In reality, however, emotions greatly influence and, in many cases, even determine our decisions. In a 2013 article, “How emotions influence what we buy,” published in Psychology Today, marketing psychologist Peter Murray says:
“A brand is nothing more than a mental representation of a product in the consumer’s mind. If the representation consists only of the product’s attributes, features, and other information, there are no emotional links to influence consumer preference and action. The richer the emotional content of a brand’s mental representation, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.”
Facts and data are valuable in communication with target audiences, but emotions are more persuasive in our irrational minds. Once you make someone feel something through trigger words or storytelling, you can connect with them. When you connect with someone, you can more easily persuade them to take the action you want them to take. Therefore, in any setting, the imperative is to use more emotional words in your messages.
Humans process images a thousand times faster than text and are drawn to beautiful visuals, which is why showcasing strong graphic design is an important factor in marketing. This is also one of the reasons TV and video have so much influence on consumer purchase behavior. Evoking an emotional response to your products or services through powerful pictures increases the amount of interest and attention they get.
As a communication professional, you are likely to be producing lots of printed material, using many images and frequently writing online content. Three main factors go into emotional design, according to Shanelle Mullin. These factors can either reinforce existing emotions or work to change emotions: (1) font, (2) color, (3) images:
Different font styles can also create different emotions subconsciously. Think of fonts as the online version of body language. Around half of emotional communication can occur through body language.
Clear, reader-friendly font is considered more trustworthy by readers. You will be surprised how much of a difference a good font and layout on a page can make. Read my article, “Using reverse type dramatically reduces reader comprehension,” to discover how poorly chosen reverse-type on a printed page can plunge reader comprehension levels, and no doubt reduce online comprehension as well.
Reverse type usually projects better in headlines, but look at this Nike “About Us” shocker of a website page in 2020.
Even online, it’s as much about how you say something as what you say. While you might not be intentionally evoking emotion through your font choices, you are. You should make that choice more informed and deliberate.
Color exerts a strong influence on people. Research has found that around 85% of consumers say color is the main reason they buy a particular product. Also, people tend to make a sub-conscious judgment about an environment or product within 90 seconds of first viewing, and about 60-90% of their assessment is based solely on color.
Color psychology is usually well understood. Gregory Ciotti’s “The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding” is an excellent guide to color psychology. To simplify and summarize, The Logo Company created this handy infographic:
Image: The Logo Company.
However, you need to be realistic about color. It is not a magic influence. Relying on a warm color, for instance, won’t automatically make a reader happier. You must combine color with other elements to create an overall emotional effect.
Choose the two or three colors that will create or maintain your emotion of choice. Remember that color alone cannot create an emotion; it must be supported by other factors. Use them consistently in your branding. It’s important that these colors become closely associated with your brand.
The power of the unconscious mind in assessing brands is greater than the conscious mind. This view is discussed in a 2019 KelloggInsights article, “Good brand design appeals to consumers on an unconscious level,” by Bobby J. Calder, Professor Emeritus of Marketing, at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
People process images a thousand times faster than text and are drawn to beautiful visuals, which is why showcasing strong graphic design is an important factor in marketing. This is also one of the reasons TV and video have so much impact on consumer purchase behavior. Evoking an emotional response to your products, services or your good cause through powerful pictures increases the amount of interest and attention they get. Evaluate your current images. What emotions do they evoke? The answer is never “none.” If they’re not creating or maintaining the correct emotion, change them. Be aware of facial expressions, size, color, body language, etc. All of these factors impact the emotion in your images.
When you use more emotional words in messages, you increase their impact. Two main factors go into emotional copywriting:
Trigger words are commonly associated with specific emotions. When a person reads them, the words subconsciously trigger those emotions. Repeatedly using words that typically trigger a certain emotion will, inevitably, trigger that emotion for your readers or visitors.
First, ensure you understand the words your audience is familiar with. Yes, most people associate arrogant, greed, cruelty, hate, and bitter with “angry.” And yes, most people associate despair, unfortunate, sorry, agony, and helpless with “sadness.”
Repeat trigger words through your copy to inspire and maintain the emotion you’re using. Tap into your audience’s existing vocabulary (through qualitative research, eg focus groups or individual interviews of consumers/stakeholders) for best results.
Craft a story with a protagonist and a beginning, a middle, and an end. Facts and figures alone won’t evoke emotion, but a relatable story will. Your target audience, including customers, employees, decision-makers and other stakeholders will remember you better and will be easier to persuade.
Trigger words are not universal, and the best way to discover them is to:
Is there a more emotional word you could use? Every trigger word should tell a cohesive emotional story. Ask a colleague to repeat the process of deciding on a trigger word. If you can, ask a customer or someone else from your target audience to repeat the process.
Storytelling can be an indispensable tool for you. Stories can be compelling and easy to share. They can help trigger the emotions you may want to lead to your desired outcome. You can practice the use of more emotional words in messages contained in stories.
Shanelle Mullin mentions a simple story about the power of storytelling: Dr Jennifer Aaker, a US behavioral scientist and professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, asked each of her students to give a one-minute pitch. One in 10 students used a story in their pitch. When asked to recall the pitches later, only 5% of students could cite a statistic, but 63% could remember the story—in detail.
Our brains respond well to stories. Consider how many bad movies or books you’ve finished simply because you started them. We’re hardwired to finish stories; we’re already invested and need to know how they end. In addition, it’s much easier to make an emotional connection to a person than a company (positive or not), eg Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.
Shanelle has written a good article, “The science of storytelling & memory and the impact on CRO.”
Robert Cialdini, social psychology professor emeritus and best-selling author, says in his 2016 book, Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade, p. 100, that research has concluded that “we should think of language as primarily a mechanism of influence,” no longer just as a means of delivering information. This underlines the fact that key messages need to be carefully crafted because they are so important. They shape what you want people to think and do, even if it is subconscious shaping in the minds of the receivers, as discussed earlier in this article.
Communication is about influence (and I see that PR veteran and prolific author Robert Dilenschneider defines public relations as “the art of influence” in his latest book, The Public Relations Handbook, published in 2022). Being influential highlights the importance of being ethical, both in business and in the communication role. For instance, business ethics are considered the top UK business reputation risk, according to a 2021 survey by Mettle Capital, reported in PRmoment.
Public relations ethics is the application of knowledge, understanding and reasoning to questions of right and wrong behavior in the professional practice of public relations, according to Krishna Athal in 2021. A necessary precondition of professionalism is ethically defensible behavior. In short, ethics are standards of integrity: They are about doing the right thing. Ethics refer to the personal values or deeply held belief systems that underpin the moral choices with which you respond to a specific situation. Values considered essential to an ethical life are honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, fidelity, fairness, caring for others, respect for others, responsible citizenship, the pursuit of excellence and accountability.
In communication practice, ethical behavior relates both to the practitioner and the organization for whom the work is being carried out — that is, the ethical implications of the strategies and tactics used to solve challenges or create opportunities. Therefore, as a communication professional, you need to balance your personal and professional ethics as well as the institutional ethics of the organization you are representing.
There are five levels of duty for communication professionals: yourself, your employer, profession, client and society. The five multiple levels of duties are not listed in priority order, but should guide decisions based on what you truly believe is right or wrong. When you are writing messages, especially emotional messages, maintain good ethical standards so you aren’t manipulative and betraying the values included above. Ethical dilemmas are not easy; they are perplexing situations involving decisions about what is right or wrong, so you need to include ethical considerations in all your key messages, especially those using emotional words. And be ready to justify, to your clients or your organizational bosses, the decisions you have made on your use of trigger words that draw on emotions
Functional MRI neuro-imagery has shown that, when evaluating brands, we all primarily use emotions, not factual information. Studies have also shown that positive emotions toward a brand have greater influence on loyalty than trust, which is usually based on facts and past performance. Therefore, aim to make an emotional appeal and present an emotional benefit. “This is why you would be feeling this way about this issue. Now, take this action to feel another way.”
You’re an emotional creature with a habit of rationalizing; you aren’t a rational creature. Accept this. It is human nature. Become more aware of how your emotions impact your decision-making. In doing so, you can truly understand how to use emotions to persuade others in your messaging, and this will increase conversions to your product, service, cause or case you are making to others.
While we have focused in this article on four fundamental emotions (happy, sad, fear/surprise and disgust/anger), there are dozens of emotions in the spectrum. As with all elements of communication, you should ideally test your messaging to see which emotions drive your audience. You could analyze your draft headlines using a tool like CoSchedule’s free headline analyzer to find more emotionally-based words in your headlines, which are the most important focus of your readers.
Top image: The Human Connectome Project.
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