Grab attention with creative copy

Make readers’ brains light up

After I presented a Make Your Copy More Creative workshop recently, an attendee pulled me aside. “The speeches I write are just 20 minutes long,” he said. “I can’t afford to make room for anecdotes, metaphors and wordplay.”

Grab attention with creative copy

Attention to detail Concrete, creative details grab attention, increase reading, make readers’ brains light up — even help people slow down and read more carefully. Abstract, literal material does not. Image by Roman Kraft

I told him he couldn’t afford not to make room for creative elements — that those may well be the only parts of his speech his audience listened to.

That conversation reminded me of an old joke among professional speakers:

“When should you use humor in a speech?” a young speaker asks an experienced orator.
“Only when you want to get paid,” the veteran answers.

The same thing is true for writers: When should you use creative material in your message?

Only when you want your audience to pay attention.

Attention is Job 1.

Grabbing attention is one of the four key responsibilities of a business communicator. After all, our job description is to get readers to:

  • Pay attention to our messages
  • Understand them
  • Remember them
  • Act on them later

The communicator’s four-part job description Write messages that get readers to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on our messages. And you can’t do that without concrete details.

And that takes creative story elements.

It’s true. Creative material:

1. Grabs attention. There’s a little piece of your brain — it’s called the Broca’s area — that’s responsible for helping you sort through all of the many messages you get each day.

Well-worn phrases and familiar ideas don’t activate Broca’s area. Plain old ‘splainin’ doesn’t do anything for it either. But creative techniques like wordplay do.

Are you making readers’ eyes glaze over — or light up?

2. Keeps that attention longer. In 1986, two researchers named Suzanne Hidi and William Baird studied readership of “creative” sentences. One example:

“Adult wolves carry food home in their stomachs and bring it up again or regurgitate it for the young cubs to eat — the wolf version of canned baby food.”

Here’s a finding that will surprise absolutely nobody: The creative sentences encouraged reading more than boring ones.

How creative are your sentences? Do they encourage reading — or discourage it?

3. Makes readers’ brains light up. Think of description as virtual reality:

  • Describe a scent, and your readers’ primary olfactory cortexes light up.
  • Describe texture, and you activate their sensory cortexes.
  • Describe kicking, and not only do you stimulate their motor cortexes, but you stimulate the specific part of the motor cortex responsible for leg action.

But write abstractly — aka, the way we usually do in business communications — and readers’ brains remain dark.

Want to stimulate some brain activity around, say, your CEO’s latest strategy or that brilliant Whatzit you’ll be releasing later this month?

Creative material is the answer.

Are you using creative elements to draw attention to your message? Or are you trying to light up readers’ brains with the same old blah-blah-blah?

  • Get to Aha!

    Master a creative process that works with — not against — your brain

    Want to come up with fresher, faster, more inspired story ideas and writing insights?

    Get to Aha! Master a creative process that works with — not against — your brain

    Welcome to the wonderful world of the creative process.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on July 25-26 in Portland — you’ll master a five-step creative process that helps you produce more and better ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Write while washing the dishes: Find out why taking a walk, a nap or a break is actually part of the creative process.
    • Treat writer’s block, procrastination and formulaic thinking: When you understand the creative process, you can end-run some of the common problems that writers and editors face.
    • Avoid "creative incest": Stop creating communications that are dull replicas of the same thing you did last year — and the year before that.


Sources: “Reading Creates ‘Simulations’ In Minds,” NPR, Jan. 31, 2009

Véronique Boulenger, Beata Y. Silber, Alice C. Roy, Yves Paulignan, Marc Jeannerod and Tatjana A. Nazir, “Subliminal display of action words interferes with motor planning: A combined EEG and kinematic study,” Journal of Physiology-Paris, Vol. 102, Issues 1–3, January-May 2008, pp. 130-136

Julio González, Alfonso Barros-Loscertales, Friedemann Pulvermuller, Vanessa Meseguer,  Ana Sanjuán, Vicente Belloch, and Cesar Avila, “Reading ‘cinnamon’ activates olfactory brain regions,” NeuroImage, May 2006

Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla and K. Sathian, “Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex,” Brain & Language, Vol. 120, Issue 3, March 2012, pp. 416–421

Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012

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