Writing compelling copy with a stick and red feathers

August 18, 2011 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Persuasion 

red featherGetting people to say “yes” is the goal for any sales message. It’s what psychologists call “compliance.”

However, my first exposure to the idea of compliance was not in a psychology book, but beneath a tree decades ago when my grandfather, in a moment of playfulness, showed me something startling with a stick and a few red feathers.

One day, he handed me a long stick with a clump of red feathers taped to the end and said he wanted to show me something. He had a familiar, mischievous look in his eye, so I knew it would be fun.

In a tree near his tool shed, a family of robins had nested. We slowly and quietly worked our way to just beneath the tree, and my grandfather told me to raise the feather end of the stick up to the nest.

Nearby, a male red breasted robin stood guard. When he saw the red feathers, he immediately attacked them, chirping wildly and flapping his wings in distress. I was dumbfounded.

Between chuckles, my grandfather explained that red feathers made the bird go berserk. I asked why, and he told me he wasn’t sure, but figured that the bird thought the feathers were another robin. He said robins protect their territory and will attack another robin on sight.

Smart man, my grandfather.

Since then, I’ve seen experiments demonstrating that a male robin will attack a simple bunch of red breast feathers but ignore a detailed replica of an actual male robin that does not have red breast feathers.

This is an example of what scientists call “fixed-action patterns” in animals. A fixed action pattern is a precise and predictable sequence of behavior. It’s instinctive, an automatic response. This sequence is set in motion by a specific “trigger.”

Fixed-action patterns are common among animals. But what about humans? What if you could use a trigger to set off a desirable sequence of behavior in a potential customer — like saying “yes” to a request you make?

Actually, you can.

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini, a respected social scientist and specialist in the area of compliance psychology, says that “… automatic, stereotyped behavior is prevalent in much of human action …”

He cites an experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, where you can see this concept in action. Langer approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine and asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” About 60% said “yes.”

Under similar circumstances, she did the same thing, but instead asked, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” In this case, an overwhelming 93% said “yes.”

What happened to increase the “yes” response so dramatically?

It’s a well-known principle that people like to have a reason. A reason helps people make a decision and justify their action. However, in this experiment, “because I have to make some copies” does not provide any new information. It does not actually give a reason.

“Because” is usually followed by information and has become, for most people, a “trigger.” Once the trigger is learned, it is powerful enough to set in motion a fixed action pattern, in this case a “yes” response, even in the absence of concrete information.

So what are the triggers you should know as a copywriter? Cialdini identifies 6. I’ll introduce you to them, along with how to apply them, in my next post.

Related posts:

  1. Fascinations: The art of writing compelling teaser copy
  2. 10 secrets for writing “open me” envelope teaser copy
  3. Convincing the gatekeeper: writing copy for the real decision maker

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