Catch attention with this one word secret
You’re sitting in a crowded café, waiting for them. Around you, the chatter of conversation, and on the shelves is a scattering of hipster knick-knacks. Then, cutting through the noise, you hear them.
‘Hey, you!’ It’s your friend, coming towards you, carrying a present.
What’s in the present?
Wrapped up in this simple moment is the single most powerful writing tactic I know. It cuts through all the distractions that surround your readers — dozens of competitors’ messages. Hundreds of other thoughts. When you use this tactic, readers tune out everything else. They just hear you.
This tactic is also only of the very few writing tricks that works right across the board, in every format. I’ve used it in web copy for a multi-national IT company, and brochure for a personal stylist.
And it comes down to one word.
When you write, speak directly to the person you want to reach. Call them ‘you.’
How to make bouncers love your content
Every second, your brain receives 400 billion bits of sensory input. What you touch, see, hear… If you were consciously aware of every single sensation, your head would be packed beyond capacity — like a nightclub so crowded, no one can elbow their way to the bar.
Luckily, your brain has a bouncer: the reticular activating system, or Ras for short. Ras helps you focus on one thing, and he does that by filtering out background noise.
Stop reading for a second. Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Those sounds were there all along. You ‘heard’ them, but while you were reading, Ras tuned them out.
Here’s what’s going on inside your brain: Ras stands at the door of your mind, inspecting each sensation queuing for entry. Only select sensations will ever be allowed into your awareness. Outside the nightclub, a woman in a crimson dress walks the length of the queue, and shows Ras a sealed envelope with the owner’s name on it. Ras lifts the velvet rope to let her through. He leaves the others outside, milling around in the background.
Ras has one simple rule for deciding who gets noticed: relevance. What does this sensation have to do with you?
How to do it
When you talk directly to the reader, your words stand out. Your message isn’t a poster on a wall, reeling off the same message for everyone who passes by. It’s a handwritten letter, addressed to the reader. They’ll walk past a hundred posters, but they’ll stop to open the letter.
Let’s take a look at two examples.
You’re skimming through your email feed. There’s an email headed ‘A special offer for valued clients.’ Would you open that email, or keep on skimming? Readers have to decode ‘valued clients’ to figure out if it applies to them.
Ras leaves that email standing outside in the rain.
Now here’s the second example. The email subject line reads, ‘We have an offer for you.’ It’s exactly the same concept, but far more likely to trigger interest. We haven’t inserted distance between the reader via a label. We’ve handed it a VIP pass.
Using ‘you’ doesn’t just help your content jump cues outside nightclubs, it makes the crowd inside like you more.
How to make everybody else love your content
We want to do business with people we like. How can your content make your business likeable? By turning our content into exchange between two people. By mirroring the natural patterns of conversation.
When we talk in person, our speech is littered with personal pronouns. ‘You’, ‘we’, ‘I’. So why is it that, when we sit down to write, we try to remove ourselves from the picture altogether?
When I read most businesses’ marketing, it’s difficult to imagine the words ever being touched by a living human. Instead, I read blasts of beige, like ‘Phillips Plumbing is excited to announce…’
That phrase sounds hollow because there’s no person behind the content. No-one I can connect to and be persuaded by.
But I’m a multinational corporation…?
Sole traders and start-ups find this concept easier to pick up and run with. They are their business. But even the largest corporation can become more persuasive by anchoring their brand in a personal voice. Someone is speaking to someone.
Fostering connection can be as simple as bringing more relational language into your words. Here’s an example from software giant Atlassian’s home page:
Spend more time getting things done. Organize your work, create documents, and discuss everything in one place.
Think that this tactic only works for ‘edgy’ software companies? Here’s one from Slater and Gordon:
Our dedicated team will work hard for you and give your matter the attention it deserves.
The lawyers’ tone is more conservative — more corporate — but the same device is at work. Their message is far more likely to gain admission because it talks straight to you.
There’s one last reason to use ‘you’— it’s harder to write badly.
Run your eyes through a book on clear writing, and most of the habits they call out — convoluted sentences, vagueness, abstraction — stem from smothering the speaker.
To show you what I mean, let’s take a clear sentence and muddle it up.
We’ll start with ‘How are you?’ That’s nice and clear.
Now see what happens when we try to say this without using any direct, relational language:
‘The other participant in this conversation is enquiring about the subjectively-experienced well-being of the person to whom this question is addressed.’
Which would you rather read?
We can make writing well a chore. Picking off faults till we’re perfect. Memorising all the rules about passive voice, and subjunctive clauses, and rapping our knuckles with a ruler each time we forget. Or we can make it easy for ourselves. Choose habits that steer us towards clarity. Think of the person who needs to hear us, and tell it to them straight.