I recently came across a particularly interesting technique, which although can veer into the slightly unethical, clearly illustrates how a writer can use insights into human nature to improve their literature and connect with their audience.
Have you ever heard of the Barnum-Forer effect? Essentially, in the middle of the 20th century, several psychologists were trying to delve into the core characteristics individuals tended to attribute to themselves. They conducted a personality test where students were given a “personality test” and later were given the results of the test based on how they answered. There was a catch, though; everyone was given the exact same result.
Some of the students that participated in the study were so touched by the results, they were moved to tears!
Even more interesting was the fact that the personality traits they fabricated were based on horoscopes, graphology, and other controversial forms of parapsychology. Some of the common traits they included in their “results”, which we will be taking a deeper dive into were:
- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
- Security is one of your major goals in life.
What exactly does that mean? Are human beings fundamentally the same? Do we all perceive a certain set of values and try to work towards them?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t really tell you :-). However, it is possible to use this information to create articles, copy, and other forms of writing that will affect a broad range of audiences and speak to the common humanity that we all share.
WARNING: If you do not sincerely believe that the product or service you are selling can help your reader with his or her doubt, uncertainty, or desire, you are in fact manipulating him or her for the sole benefit of your own financial interests. That is evil. Don’t be evil, please :-).
The Barnum-Forer effect is also often used to mislead people with horoscopes, and to lure them into buying shady products or services. There are even articles on the internet in which marketers are advised to exploit the effect as cleverly as possible with writing techniques. That’s not what I’m doing here. I will never condone the willful exploitation of people to make a quick buck.
As a reader you have to pay attention and that it is wise not to involve yourself too quickly with the texts that you read. The Barnum-Forer effect shows that words are powerful weapons, and as a copywriter you have a moral responsibility to use your influence to improve the wellbeing of your audience.
How To Use the Barnum-Forer Effect in Copywriting
With their experiment, Barnum and Forer showed that people tend to accept personality descriptions with vague characterizations of common desires and dreams as their own, without realizing that they apply to almost everyone.
If you’re interested in using this technique to improve your writing skills, focus on writing personal messages in which the reader is addressed with the word “you”. Refer to the wishes and uncertainty everyone in your particular niche has. This should be fairly easy to surmise if you’re well versed in the common problems people that need your service face.
Without being disingenuous, write in a manner that will make your audience recognize themselves in your text. It takes a certain amount of trial and error to perfect, so let’s examine some of the common characteristics people respond to:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
This should be fairly obvious to use. Virtually everyone has the need to be seen as a valuable member of society. If, as an example, you’re in the online marketing niche, you can try to make your readers imagine what it would be like to be a successful entrepreneur and the respect they will gain from that.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
Another obvious point. The reason people would want your course, product, etc… would be to tap into their innate potential.
Security is one of your major goals in life.
How does your product or service offer security? If you’re selling some kind of money-making product, try to allude to the financial stability extra income will provide your customers. Here’s an open secret: almost everyone, even high earning, successful individuals often have a twinge of insecurity when it comes to financial matters. It should be fairly easy to craft something that will help them feel more secure.
Ultimately, this writing technique works because most people have a core set of beliefs that rarely vary across the ages. The Barnum-Forer experiment was conducted in 2011 with very similar results. If you can make your readers feel that they are being addressed on deep, personal desires, even if in reality they are only vague allusions to those desires, they will respond in kind.
The Barnum-Forer effect has a clear purpose in commercial texts of varying scopes. When applied, the hope is that the reader will start to trust the author(s) more due to the feeling of recognition the technique creates. The goal is always to make people identify with a certain product.
As a writer, before you employ this technique, you should always ask yourself whether or not it is morally responsible to use it, why you are using it and what your ultimate goal is.