On judgment, causality and copywriting.

bike and copywritingDuring the summer months, after work, I either take my kayak out on the river, or cycle for an hour along the local bike paths.

When I’m cycling I always stop at the same park bench for a rest at the half-way mark, exactly 10 kilometers from my home.

A couple of weeks ago a gentleman sat down on the bench next to mine and starting talking to me. He seemed to have an axe to grind about the number of Muslims living in Montreal.

To support his opinion, he told me a story about how he had seen a couple of Muslims sitting at one of the park’s few picnic tables that are specially designed and designated for people in wheelchairs. But when a man in a wheelchair approached the table, the two Muslims waved him away and carried on with their conversation.

The gentleman talking to me presented this story as evidence that Muslims were not good people and shouldn’t be welcome in our city.

Coincidentally, the very next day, two young Muslim women with headscarves sat down on the same bench next to mine. They were in their twenties, chatting away, checking their smartphones and enjoying the sun.

Then they saw an old couple with walking sticks coming down the path, glancing at the benches.

Both young women jumped up and offered the bench to the old couple.

One could conclude from this that all Muslims are thoroughly decent and kind people.

Of course, both conclusions are wrong.

All one can reasonably conclude is that the people at the picnic table were selfish and unkind, and that the two women on the bench were selfless and decent.

Their behaviour had nothing to do with either their religion or how they dressed.

So why do we jump to conclusions like this? Why are we so fast to judge people based on surface indicators like their ethnic origin, their age, their weight, how they dress, how they do their hair and so on?

There are plenty of reasons. But the one I’m interested in today is our obsession with causality.

When we see something or hear about something, we absolutely have to be able to identify a cause. We feel hugely uncomfortable in the absence of a simple, easy-to-identify and often superficial cause.

Why is our son doing poorly at school? We’ll never just say that he’s not very gifted academically…that bookwork is not his thing. Instead, we’ll find a cause. Maybe it’s the school, or the teachers, or maybe he has a learning disability.

Why is the weather so hot this summer? Again, we’ll rarely shrug and say, “Heck, the weather varies year to year. Always has and always will.” Instead we’ll find a cause, whether its global climate change or a shift in the flow of the Gulf Stream.

Why is the economy in trouble? The real answer is hugely complicated. But we don’t like complicated. We want to be able to identify a single, easy-to-explain cause.

Depending on who you talk to, the cause of our fragile economy might be the Fed, the 1%, Obama, Wall Street…and so on.

You can see this obsession with causality play out in the financial press every day. Consider these headlines on the price of gold, all published on the same day in response to the same move in gold prices.

Gold falls on profit taking, weak physical demand.

Gold falls on increased appetite for risk.

Gold falls on positive news out of Europe.

You’ll find headlines like these every day. Each journalist finds a different cause for the fall in the price of gold. The real cause is always more complicated, but the journalists know their readers want to be given one, simple cause.

By now, I hope you are putting two and two together and seeing how our obsession with causality impacts your work as a copywriter.

When you write to an audience, you need to identify a single, simple cause.

To show you what I mean, here is a headline for a weight loss ad that absolutely won’t work.

Man loses 20lbs after changing his diet, exercising 40 minutes a day, getting more sleep and taking probiotics.

This headline is far more likely to work.

Man loses 20lbs after taking probiotics.

Better still…

Man loses 20lbs after making this one simple change to his diet.

The first headline is the most “real” and honest. But it won’t sell much.

The second headline taps into our obsession with identifying a single, superficial cause for everything we see and experience.

The third headline sticks with the single cause, but adds some intrigue. You have to read beyond the headline to find the answer.

As a copywriter you are probably already aware of the “rule of one”. In other words, stick with one message, one promise and one offer. Keep it simple.

Now I want you to overlay the “rule of one” with an understanding of causality.

Your one message and one promise shouldn’t be based on a deeply understood and carefully considered appreciation of the complexity of life as it really is.

Instead, you should focus on that one, simple and usually superficial cause that your audience is most likely to respond to.

In my next post I’ll tackle part two of this story…which is how causality is linked to stories and narratives, and how you can use that link to further increase the power of your copy. Here it is…

About the author: Nick Usborne is an online writer, copywriter, author and coach.

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One thought on “On judgment, causality and copywriting.

  1. Thanks for this great insight, Nick. I’m new here and am very much enjoying your pro tips!

    It makes sense that a copywriter should appeal to the intuition of the reader. It is certainly the same case for technical writing and UI messaging. While exploring the gray area of causality is what makes life richer and more complex, in copy, posing too many choices for the reader from the get-go simply breeds indecision. We don’t want to leave the reader in a state of inaction!

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