Inception-PosterWhat’s the ulti­mate act of influence?

Plant­ing an idea in another’s mind so that not just the idea but the emo­tion behind the idea take route natively, as if the idea was the prod­uct of the recipient’s own thought, as if they had con­ceived it themselves.

At least, that’s what Christo­pher Nolan might say if you asked him, as his lat­est film, Incep­tion, is built around exactly that premise.  The idea that a tech­nol­ogy which allows one to enter into another’s dreams (or to pull another into one’s own dreams) might also allow a per­son to either steal infor­ma­tion from the sub­con­scious of another, or plant an idea into the sub­con­scious of another.

If you haven’t yet seen the film, you’re prob­a­bly best off book­mark­ing this post for later, as sev­eral plot spoil­ers await. But if you have seen the film, and if you’re a copy­writer or busi­ness own­ers, the very idea of incep­tion prob­a­bly sent your mind spin­ning over the con­nec­tions between incep­tion and copywriting/persuasion.

At least that’s what hap­pened to me, and here’s what I saw:

1) All influ­ence is self-influence

Within the film, most every­one except our hero and his team believe that “incep­tion” can’t be done. Peo­ple can tell when a thought isn’t theirs, and the mind reacts to an out­side thought with psy­chic defenses and resis­tance.  As Arthur from the film says:

… it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you… [Even when the idea is implanted sub­con­sciously]… The subject’s mind can always trace the gen­e­sis of the idea.  True inspi­ra­tion is impos­si­ble to fake.”

Unless…

Unless you let the per­son draw the con­clu­sion them­selves, so that they  “gen­er­ate” and own the idea.

In the movie, the idea that Cobb and his team are hired to implant is: “Break up your fathers empire,” but rather than try­ing to plant that idea whole, they plant emo­tional impulses that (they hope) will lead the mark, Fis­cher, to draw that con­clu­sion for him­self. These impulses, planted at suc­ces­sively deeper lev­els of the uncon­scious (dream within a dream within a dream), are as follows:

  • Level 1 — “I will not fol­low in my Father’s footsteps”
  • Level 2 (aka, the dream within a dream) — “I will cre­ate some­thing for myself”
  • Level 3 (aka, the dream within a dream within a dream) - “My father doesn’t want me to be him”

They are lead­ing Fis­cher to the con­clu­sion that he should break up his Father’s empire, and they are mov­ing towards more sub­tle, pos­i­tive, and emo­tional seeds for that idea at each level.

More impor­tantly, Cobb’s team takes this one step far­ther by hav­ing most of these impulses come from Fischer’s (aka, the mark’s) own sub-conscious.  On level 1 they have one of their team mem­bers, Eames, play the role of Fischer’s men­tor and sur­ro­gate father, Uncle Peter.  Eames imper­son­ates Uncle Peter  in order to sug­gest the seed of the idea to Fis­cher in an emo­tion­ally res­o­nant form.  Cobb’s team then drops Fis­cher down another level by tak­ing him to a dream within a dream, and at that deeper level, Fischer’s own sub­con­scious cre­ates the Uncle Peter char­ac­ter (Eames no longer has to imper­son­ate him).  At this deeper dream within a dream, Fischer’s own sub­con­scious plays the role of Uncle Peter. This way Fis­cher feeds the idea to him­self so that the idea seems self-generated.

This cor­re­sponds with the old writ­ing adage: “show, don’t tell.” In other words, give your read­ers the infor­ma­tion or con­text they need to draw the con­clu­sion you want, and allow them to fill in the gaps. Tell me you have great cus­tomer ser­vice and I say, “yeah, sure”; tell me you guar­an­tee to answer my calls within 7 rings and to resolve all my tech­ni­cal issues within an hour of call­ing, and I think “Wow, that’s great cus­tomer service!”

The whole thing works even bet­ter if the con­text you sup­ply appeals to the reader’s already estab­lished truths, biases and prej­u­dices.  Remem­ber how Cobb’s team deliv­ered the seed idea to Fis­cher from his trusted and loved Uncle Peter? Do the same thing for your read­ers by cloth­ing your sug­gested con­clu­sions in the con­text of old famil­iar truths.

This is a tech­nique as old as Aris­to­tle, who called Enthymemes the soul of per­sua­sion. Why? Because they take the form of log­i­cal rea­son­ing while assum­ing a cen­tral ele­ment of the argu­ment.  This assump­tion forces the audi­ence to fill in the miss­ing gap, mak­ing them active par­tic­i­pants in the chain of rea­son­ing.  An enthymeme makes the con­clu­sion feel self-generated for those who share the assumed piece of the argument.

Here’s an exam­ple or two:

Does this place look like I’m … mar­ried? The toi­let seat’s up, man!“
(The Dude in The Big Lebowski, 1998)

Notice how YOU had to sup­ply the miss­ing premise of “Mar­ried men are trained to put the toi­let seat back down.” By par­tic­i­pat­ing in he chain of rea­son­ing, the con­clu­sion seems almost self-drawn, doesn’t it?

Here’s another one from Dannon:

One of the Soviet Georgia’s senior cit­i­zens thought Dan­non was an excel­lent yogurt. She ought to know. She’s been eat­ing yogurt for 137 years.“
(1970s tele­vi­sion adver­tise­ment for Dan­non Yogurt)*

And this Geico ad does an excel­lent job of pok­ing fun at its own assumed premise:

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2) Nested sto­ry­telling = the dream within a dream

The dream state pro­vides access to the sub­con­scious. But a dream within a dream takes you that much deeper into the sub­con­scious, which is why Cobb is noto­ri­ous for using the tech­nique, and why his team elects to take it to a max­i­mum for their attempt at incep­tion.  By going to a dream within a dream, Cobb’s team can sug­gest things to Fis­cher that his con­scious mind would likely reject.

For copy­writ­ers, the dream within a dream is a nested story (aka, a story within a story). In writ­ing copy you inevitably cre­ate – at a min­i­mum – one frame of ref­er­ence: the one between your autho­r­ial voice and the reader. So intro­duc­ing a story into your con­ver­sa­tion with the audi­ence instantly “nests” that story within the larger “nar­ra­tive” of your copy, one frame of ref­er­ence within the larger frame in which you’re “speak­ing” to the prospect.

The beauty of this tech­nique is that the reader will uncon­sciously iden­tify with pro­tag­o­nist of the story, so that emo­tions cre­ated within the nested story don’t stay inside the story — they fol­low the read­ers across to the frame story.  This is impor­tant because a copy­writer can get away with sug­gest­ing things within the con­text of “just a story” that he could not cred­i­bly write as explicit claims or statements.

Take the begin­ning of this, per­haps the most famous direct mail piece of all time, in which Mar­tin Con­roy starts telling his story, open­ing with the phrase “on a beau­ti­ful late spring after­noon.” And with that one phrase Con­roy estab­lishes both his autho­r­ial voice, speak­ing to you, while also cre­at­ing the inner frame of his nested story – that of the busi­ness parable.

On a beau­ti­ful late spring after­noon, twenty-five years ago, two young men grad­u­ated from the same col­lege. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been bet­ter than aver­age stu­dents, both were per­son­able and both – as young col­lege grad­u­ates are – were filled with ambi­tious dreams for the future.

Recently, these men returned to their col­lege for their 25th reunion.
They were very much alike. Both were hap­pily mar­ried. Both had three chil­dren. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Mid­west­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany, and were still there.

But there was a dif­fer­ence. One of the men was man­ager of a small depart­ment of that com­pany. The other was its president.

What Made The Difference

Have you ever won­dered, as I have, what makes this kind of dif­fer­ence in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intel­li­gence or tal­ent or ded­i­ca­tion. It isn’t that one per­son wants suc­cess and the other doesn’t.

The dif­fer­ence lies in what each per­son knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writ­ing to you and to peo­ple like you about The Wall Street Jour­nal. For that is the whole pur­pose of the Jour­nal: To give its read­ers knowl­edge – knowl­edge that they can use in business…”

Notice how the nested story emo­tion­ally primes the reader within the safe con­fines of “just a story”, while simul­ta­ne­ously posi­tion­ing that emo­tional charge to jump across to the rest of the copy. This causes many read­ers to inter­pret Conroy’s offer that The Wall Street Jour­nal will pro­vide  “knowl­edge that they can use in busi­ness” as ‘the WSJ will help me get the pro­mo­tions I deserve’ — a state­ment the writer could never have got­ten away with had he attempted to baldly and explic­itly assert it into the copy directly.

If this con­nec­tion between dreams and sto­ries seems stretched, real­ize that more than one movie critic has, while review­ing Incep­tion, noted the con­nec­tion between enter­ing into a shared dream and the act of watch­ing a movie; for what is a movie if not a shared dream?  And what is a story if not a movie in the mind of the reader?

Speak­ing of dreams within dreams and sto­ries within sto­ries, here’s a great ad the sort of com­bines the two to great emo­tional effect.  Watch how the emo­tion of the nested story leaps across to the frame, and by exten­sion, to you, the viewer:

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3) It’s the emo­tion behind the idea that counts

Let me just quote from the movie script on this one:

Cobb

Now the sub­con­scious moti­vates through emo­tion, not rea­son, so we have to trans­late the idea into an emo­tional concept.

Arthur

HOw do you trans­late a busi­ness strat­egy into an emotion?

Cobb

That’s what we have to fig­ure out. Robert and his father have a tense rela­tion­ship.  Worse, even, than the gos­sip columns have suggested…

Eames

Do you play on that? Sug­gest break­ing up his father’s com­pany as a ‘screw you’ to the old man?

Cobb

No. Pos­i­tive emo­tion trumps neg­a­tive emo­tion every time. We yearn for peo­ple to be rec­on­ciled, for cathar­sis. We need pos­i­tive emo­tional logic

And there you have it. Emo­tion trumps (or dri­ves) logic, and pos­i­tive emo­tion trumps neg­a­tive emo­tion. This goes way beyond fea­tures and ben­e­fits to the deep emo­tional dri­vers behind intent. How often does your copy address these deeper emo­tional motivations?

If I were to ask you right now what the deep, pos­i­tive, emo­tional moti­va­tors are for your key cus­tomers, could you even tell me? Does your copy come any­where near address­ing them?

More impor­tantly, amidst all the “Problem-Agitation-Solution” copy for­mu­las out there, are you mak­ing sure that your pos­i­tive men­tal images of future ben­e­fit out­weigh the neg­a­tive images you cre­ate of the prob­lems you claim to solve?

Do you give your pos­i­tive emo­tion at least as much force as the neg­a­tive?

4) Self iden­tity and rela­tion­ships are the key to emo­tion that counts

When it came to reach­ing Fis­cher emo­tion­ally — when it came to fram­ing the mes­sage in a way that would reach his inner­most heart — the only way to do that was through rela­tion­ship and self iden­tity. How does my Dad see me, and how do I see myself?

I’ve blogged about this before, so I won’t go into huge detail about his now, but let me just say that absent per­sonas and sce­nar­ios, there’s really no sys­tem­atic way to address self-identity in copy­writ­ing. The best copy­writ­ers do it intu­itively, but every pro knows it helps to have a sys­tem to fall back on.

What’s your system?

2010-09-22_2335So what about all you other Incep­tion fans? What were you take-aways from the movie?  Any aha moments that fol­lowed you out of the the­atre? Let me know in the comments.

Best com­ment gets a free copy of the movie’s shoot­ing script from Ama­zon.

* Hat tip to Richard Nordquist for the enthymeme examples


Piggy Bank“Faith means trust­ing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” - Phillip Yancey

How often has your ini­tial sat­is­fac­tion with a pur­chase faded over time, leav­ing you with the bit­ter after­taste of buyer’s remorse?

It’s an all-too com­mon expe­ri­ence that makes us all wary with our hard won pay­checks. Not that we nec­es­sar­ily expect first-rate cham­pagne for second-rate beer prices, but we do hope, at least, that we’ll look back on a con­sid­ered pur­chase and think, “That was money well spent.”

We may spend money to “take a chance” on some­thing — say a book, a course, or even some won­der vit­a­min — but only with the hope that our future selves will look back and thank us for the deci­sion to buy, deem­ing it “money well spent…”

Copy­writ­ing magic begins when you under­stand this back­wards look and bake it into your copy by bring­ing the prospect, in their mind’s eye, into that promised, happy future, where they can look back on the present pur­chase with grat­i­tude at the pur­chase that brought them so much sat­is­fac­tion and hap­pi­ness.  Use this men­tal time travel to invest the present pur­chase with the full weight of fate and for­tune, and to replace your reader’s ten­ta­tive hopes with the cer­tainty of expe­ri­ence — imag­ined expe­ri­ence, yes, but expe­ri­ence none the less.

So what does this have to do with Mer­lin?  Well, you don’t think it was an acci­dent that Mer­lin trav­elled through time back­wards do you? How else do you think he worked his magic?

Want to see this in action? Click the link, watch the video, and see a mas­ter­ful use of this per­sua­sive time travel. Oh yeah, and it’s a great movie clip as well — you’ll be smil­ing all day think­ing about it ;)

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2010-08-25_1227Despite the cul­tural vogue of “memes” and “going viral,” the virus metaphor fails us — espe­cially us mar­keters who would like to make a mes­sage go viral.

The virus anal­ogy sim­ply doesn’t hold up. A video or news story or urban leg­end can’t spread itself; they do not “self repli­cate.” Only human beings* spread ideas, videos, blog posts, etc — and we spread them for our own pur­poses.

So design­ing mes­sag­ing to be spread by your fel­low humans means design­ing mes­sag­ing that will serve them. You must craft sto­ries worth spread­ing, from the point of view of the prospec­tive “spreader.”

I hinted at this in my ear­lier post on The Dry Erase Girl Hoax, when I said it was a story that we wanted to be true, a desire which short-circuited my (and appar­ently most other’s) nor­mal fact-checking rou­tines.  So I was pleased when Jeff Eisen­berg e-mailed me this inter­view of the hoax’s authors rein­forc­ing this exact same point:

There’s no rea­son that somebody’s bull­shit detec­tor shouldn’t have gone off when we launched this one. Peo­ple want to believe it. I think (pulling off a hoax) takes time but it’s not as big a hur­dle as you think.” [Empha­sis mine]

Then John Resig, The hoax’s co-founder, went on to explain his own “for­mula” for a suc­cess­ful hoax — a for­mula he’s proven suc­cess­ful through the launch of 3 block-buster hoaxes in the last 2 years.

  • Num­ber one, the story has to be uplift­ing. This type of thing doesn’t have to be full of mal­ice. Any­one can say some­thing bad about some­thing else. I’m look­ing for more of an enter­tain­ment value out of it.
  • Num­ber two, I’m look­ing for a good story. If you look at the ‘Dry Erase’ hoax, it tells a story in three acts, begin­ning, mid­dle and end. It must be a story well-told.”
  • So I’d elab­o­rate the first point by say­ing that the story should be one we want to be true because it makes us feel bet­ter, either about our own sit­u­a­tion, or about the world in gen­eral, or about how our long-held beliefs turned out to be true.

    Learn­ing that some girl acci­den­tally texted her dad about los­ing her vir­gin­ity on the beach isn’t nec­es­sar­ily uplift­ing, but it says some­thing about the dan­gers of col­lid­ing social net­works and our constantly-on, dis­tracted from dis­trac­tion by dis­trac­tion soci­ety. Some­thing we all felt in our guts.  And it says it through a humor­ous, and, yes, well-told story.

    This makes us feel good by spread­ing a smile and a chuckle to our friends, but also by con­firm­ing our sus­pi­cions, which is a point worth empha­siz­ing.  Although Resig didn’t include it in his list, it helps if the hoax/story/video com­mu­ni­cates an idea or truth or insight that we couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate as well on our own. When a story encap­su­lates an idea peo­ple wish to com­mu­ni­cate, it stops mat­ter­ing whether or not the story is true, the need to com­mu­ni­cate the idea will ensure the story spreads far and wide.

    Lem­mings sim­ply don’t fol­low the herd off the cliff and into the doom of a frost-cold sea. But humans do. And we NEED that men­tal image of lem­mings to describe this all-too-human behav­ior. So the term, and the false story behind the term, remains part of our cul­ture. Peo­ple con­tinue to spread the myth.

    The flip side of this dynamic occurs when the story or video shat­ters a mis­con­cep­tion that we des­per­ately want shat­tered, like when The Girl Effect video hits us all in the gut with hope for Africa and other poverty-stricken coun­tries. If you haven’t seen it, yet, watch it below; it says some­thing impor­tant, it’ll make you smile, and it’s a story well told ;)

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    * Yeah, I’m aware that killer whales and dol­phins and maybe even some pri­mates spread “ideas,” but none of them seem to con­sume much media, or sub­scribe to blogs, or even to fall prey to hoaxes, so I’ve cho­sen to exclude them from our dis­cus­sion, OK?

    amazing-girl-quits-6What makes some urban leg­ends go viral?

    Well, for the real answer, you can always read the highly rec­om­mended Made to Stick, which was based on the Heath Bros study of this very ques­tion.  But apart from their SUCCES model, there’s one fac­tor that I think the book doesn’t dis­cuss quite directly enough:

    Often­times, the urban leg­end is some­thing we want to be true.

    Now, in a world of leg­ends about kid­ney thefts, that might sound a tad grue­some, and I’d be will­ing to admit this fac­tor isn’t always at play, but more often than not, I think you’ll find even the scary urban leg­ends con­tain some ele­ment of Schaden­freude — some way of mak­ing the world more inter­est­ing or poet­i­cally just, even if that requires rais­ing the spec­tre of the bogey man to do so.

    Case in point, this won­der­ful fable about a girl quit­ting her job via dry erase board pics e-mailed to her entire office.If you haven’t seen it, I prac­ti­cally guar­an­tee it’ll brighten your day.

    So while I usu­ally check these things out on Snopes or Google, I didn’t do that for this one. I wanted it to be true. Even after I was e-mailed the news the story was false, it still felt like it ought to be true.

    And isn’t that a les­son in copywriting?

    Start off with an image or story that the reader wants to be true — and really IS true — and you’ll find the rest of the per­sua­sion process easy.

    6a00d8341c51c053ef013485bc7a83970cAdver­tis­ing doesn’t affect you, does it?  But it does influ­ence your friends and neigh­bors, right?

    If you agree with those sen­ti­ments, as many do, you’re falling prey to what’s become known as the “third-person effect.”

    As it turns out, adver­tis­ing is effec­tive on all of us, even you and me.  We’re just noto­ri­ously bad at fig­ur­ing out our own motives, espe­cially when it comes to sens­ing the sub­con­scious, half-conscious, and uncon­scious desires and impulses that drive much of our behav­ior.  But we’re much bet­ter at the cool obser­va­tion of oth­ers, so we can see that adver­tis­ing works on “the masses” and even on our friends and neigh­bors. Hence the third per­son effect: “adver­tis­ing doesn’t work on me, but it sure seems to affect others.”

    Want to know how to turn this to your advantage?

    First, real­ize that the third-person effect is stronger when the mes­sage isn’t directly rel­e­vant to the listener/viewer/reader.  As PSYBLOG explains it:

    In other words peo­ple are likely to be influ­enced more than they think on sub­jects that are cur­rently of lit­tle or no inter­est to them. An every­day exam­ple would be see­ing an advert for a car, when you’re not in the mar­ket for a new car. We’d prob­a­bly guess it has lit­tle or no influ­ence on us, but this research sug­gests we’d be wrong.

    Now, I’m extrap­o­lat­ing a bit here, but this rather pre­cisely matches what my and my col­leagues expe­ri­ence with radio adver­tis­ing: despite the innate desire to reach peo­ple who are already in the mar­ket right nowthe best time to influ­ence your prospect is BEFORE they need what you’re sell­ing, so that they enter the mar­ket with an already estab­lished pre­dis­po­si­tion to favor you and your brand.

    When I don’t have a strong opin­ion and have lit­tle vested inter­est, it doesn’t take much to sway my pref­er­ence. And frankly, this describes exactly how most peo­ple think about a great many markets.

    Do you really have a strong opin­ion on which car­pet cleaner to call? Or which Small Engine Repair shop is the best? Or who has the best pres­sure wash­ing ser­vice for your deck or fence, and so on?

    Most of us don’t — until we need that ser­vice or prod­uct — then we’d rather not make a blind deci­sion. And that’s where advertising’s influ­ence makes all the difference.

    With the right ad cam­paign, your audi­ence will think of your com­pany first and feel the best about you.  Good enough, at least, to pick you instead of the com­pe­ti­tion, because you’ll no longer be a “blind choice.”

    Pre-internet, this kind of brand­ing cam­paign meant the prospect would flip open the Yel­low Pages and pur­pose­fully look for your ad, rather than scan­ning the page in hopes that one of the ads might catch her eye.

    Now, in the age of Google, it means the prospect searches on your com­pa­ny­name or even your Website’s URL rather than typic in more generic search terms for your mar­ket. And that pretty much screws your com­pe­ti­tions’ fancy schmancy SEO and PPC work, deliv­er­ing the prospect straight to your Web­site and then your door.

    Just don’t be sur­prised when your newly thronged store and con­stantly ring­ing phone are pop­u­lated by cus­tomers claim­ing to have heard about you from a friend, rather than your radio ads — ’cause every­one knows they’re not influ­enced by adver­tis­ing ;)

    Don’t let this video’s inane dia­logue fool you, just focus your atten­tion on the fun­da­men­tal ideas and dynam­ics pre­sented.  If your job involves per­sua­sion, this video is well worth the watch.

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