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Writing Persuasive Messages: Tips from a Nobel Laureate

It’s not everyday that you get tips on messaging and marketing from a Nobel Laureate. But that is exactly what Nobel Prize Winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman does in his recent bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. Much of his book centres on the two Systems in our brain – The first system, simply called System 1, intuitively processes information and is quick to make decisions (think driving a car), while the second system, System 2, makes deliberate and considered choices (think taking a math test).

Kahneman tells us that if you have a well thought out message that you want others to believe, it’s not just what the message is that matters, but how you say it. In general, if you engage the intuitive and automatic part of our brain (System 1), the message is more likely to be believed quickly. And the psychology lab experiments bear this out.

We’ve distilled the three best tips that Kahneman dishes out on writing persuasive messages based on the science, and summarized them into a mnemonic. So here it is, The ReferralCandy S.M.L. Rule for Persuasive Messaging.

Tip No 1: Make it Simple

Many students believe that writing in complex language and with bombastic words will lead to better marks from Professors. Kahneman details how Princeton Professor Danny Oppenheimer refutes this myth with his brilliant paper Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.

Oppenheimer gave undergraduates at Stanford sample essays to read. But some of these essays had deliberately been made more complex with longer words. The result? increasing the complexity of a text made the students judge the authors to be less, not more intelligent.

So if you have something important to say during that business presentation or marketing blurb, keep it simple and concise. It’s the smart thing to do.

Tip No. 2: Make It Memorable

Besides keeping it simple, Kahneman recommends that you make your message memorable with rhymes. He cites an experiment where participants read unfamiliar but rhyming sayings such as:

Woes unite foes. 

A fault confessed is half redressed.

Other students read some of the sayings, but with non-rhyming versions:

Woes unite enemies

A fault admitted is half redressed.

You guessed it. Readers judged that the sayings which rhymed were more insightful than those which did not, though they were equally unfamiliar. No wonder Celine Dion songs always rhyme!

Tip No. 3: Make It Legible

Which of these statements is true:

Adolf Hitler was born in 1887.

Adolf Hitler was born in 1892.

If you are anything like most people, you would have chosen the second answer. But the right answer is neither (the evil dictator was born in 1889).  The idea is that the more your message stands out from the background, the more believable it is, other things being equal.

So the next time you’re designing a website or writing advertising copy, use bold fonts, and maximize the contrast between characters and their background to make the message more legible and clear. Kahneman also advises that if you use colour, use bright blue or red as they are more believable than lighter shades of say green, yellow and pale blue.

It’s All About Cognitive Ease

It’s all about what Kahneman calls cognitive ease. The human brain likes to believe what is familiar and easy to process. So the next time you need to get your point across, use our very own S.M.L Rule of Thumb. Keep it Simple, Memorable, and Legible. Hey, that rhymes!

Alvinl

Alvin loves geeking out on technology, psychology and economics news.

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