When Elephants Are Your Biggest Copywriting Concerns
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
When I was five years old, I was adamant that the word "the" did not exist. I fought my parents tooth and nail on it. It took some gentle prodding--and the surprisingly patient input of my kindergarten teacher--for me to admit defeat. "Da", in the fact, was not the proper spelling.
I would like to say that I've since outgrown such stubbornness. As an adult, however, I've learned that most people don't "outgrow" their reluctance to change. They just handle it a different way.
Copywriting is designed to encourage people to make a change. It can be a hard sell. Change your outlook, change your schedule, change your spending habits: no matter how logical the actual reasoning is, getting people to change (even ways they ultimately want to) is a mountainous task. So how does a fresh-faced freelance copywriter start to do the near-impossible?
Easy. She starts with herself.
I'll admit, I've fallen off of the reading bandwagon pretty hard. I used to devour books on the daily (mainly, when I was supposed to be doing other things). But ever since I graduated college, the spark has just faded.
So this year, when I decided to take the plunge into copywriting, I officially decided to get over my mental hurdle, and actually pick up a book or two. Starting with Switch.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard is a handy little volume by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. I got it for $3 at my local book store, so I figured no matter what, it was a reasonable investment. It also took me a year to read (mainly because of my own wishy-washiness), but it's honestly shaped my copywriting career to this day.
One thing that really spoke to me was the central metaphor that the Heath brothers use to describe your own brain: the Rider, and the Elephant. The Rider is methodical, logical; it's the voice that plots out how you are going to change your life when you can't fall asleep at night.
The Rider knows what you need to do. That's the easy part. You need to eat healthier, you need to stop blowing your household budget, you need to get your team to work on a task. But what happens when what you need to do still doesn't happen?
It's not a deficiency of the Rider. You're not dumb, or unmotivated. You simply have an Elephant problem.
The Elephant is the instinctual, emotional side of you. It's what makes you cry during movies about dogs. It puts the fire in your belly when you want to make a positive change. It makes you recoil in horror when you finally look at the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink.
Your Elephant isn't stupid, but it is stubborn. And if you don't get your Elephant to move in the right direction, your Rider can kick and scream all day; you're still not going anywhere.
Once I finally got to business and took this book seriously, the parallels with my copywriting efforts immediately became apparent. Every piece of content is trying to convince your readers to do something, which means you're already fighting an uphill battle from the very first word.
I'm good at writing descriptive content. I'm good at writing technical content. But if I don't write persuasive content, then my project is already dead in the water.
You got to poke the Elephant.
I won't rewrite everything that the Heaths describe in their book; no one likes reading a full book report, and besides, I really do recommend you take the time and read through the whole thing yourself. But I do want to share how their suggestions have immediately improved my copy, and how they can improve yours.
Give the pre-punched card.
Turns out, people are lazy. That's okay--I'm including myself there. If you give someone a fresh punchcard to invite them to come back, chances are, they won't go out of their way to do so, even if the punchcard has great rewards. It just doesn't give enough of an immediate reward.
But what if you gave them a card with two slots already punched? Suddenly, it feels like they're hacking the system a little. The actual effort is still pretty much the same--they would have to buy 8 more drinks instead of 10--but they're still excited. After all, they're already partway there.
At its core, this really is a simple idea: action inspires motivation way easier than motivation inspires action. It's way easier to build momentum when that first step is already taken. And besides, everyone loves freebies.
So if you need to coax your readers into taking a particular action, maybe highlight how they're already halfway to the goal, or even take that first step for them. Give them the path of least resistance with embedded links, exciting discounts, or free rewards points.
Use the Elephant's laziness to your advantage, and the rest of the journey becomes a walk in the park.
Start with insanely easy goals.
This one appeals to the same primitive part of our brain as the pre-punched card. Even when the Rider plots out every pitstop, it's easy for the Elephant to get overwhelmed by all that they need to do before they even start.
Have you ever put off washing the dishes for a few weeks? (No judgment here). The task itself is easy, but when you think about all the steps you have to do--get the dish soap, run the hot water, soak the crusted pots, scrub the silverware, clean your sponge, spread out the dish towels, put everything back in the cabinets--suddenly that motivation just evaporates.
Maybe that's not the worst thing in the world when it comes to dishes (except for your roommates). But when it comes to copy, if your readers get overwhelmed, then all that effort goes down the drain.
Anyone with ADHD is probably familiar with task lists. It seems counterintuitive, but you actually want to make your task list longer, by breaking everything down into quick, concrete steps. So now you're not writing "do the dishes" in your planner. For now, start with "buying new dish soap". Boom--done.
It doesn't look like much on the surface, but again, change comes easier when you build momentum. So if you ask your readers to simply opt-in to your email list (versus buy an entire digital course), they're more likely to do the quick and easy option first.
Show, then tell.
Sometimes, merely explaining the benefits of your products or services is just not enough. You have to make an impact.
The examples the Heath brothers give are really phenomenal. In copywriting, you may not have the same capacity for visual demonstrations (like piling up every box of differently-branded medical gloves on the conference room table), but that doesn't mean you can't implement the same idea into your writing.
Pull out some wild statistics. Use provocative language. Ask your readers something they don't expect.
Remember, you're not appealing to the Rider here. Well-reasoned data and logical explanations are nice but moot. You're putting everything out in the open here: show your reader the insanity of their own situation. Make them feel something (whether bad or good).
If you can inject a bit of adrenaline into the Elephant's heart, then the Rider can get them back on track fairly easily. Whether you want to elicit passion or panic, bring something amazing or absurd centerstage, and start from there.
Change is logical, but the actual process doesn't always feel like it. So if your copy is relying on convincing your reader with appeals to intellect, it may be time to try the other side of the coin. "Informed passion", so to speak: basing your copy on hard facts, while putting that info into a language your readers' Elephants will understand.
My little $3 manual was the first step for me to appeal to the Elephant and Rider alike. Much like change, my inspiration often comes from the most unexpected of places--and I can't wait to see where it comes from next.