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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Write to Reward Your Reader

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Illustration by Asia Pietrzyk

Chances are that every time you sit down to write — whether it’s a report or a speech or a white paper or an op-ed — you hear a little voice. It’s your high-school teacher or college professor reciting the rules of writing: Use the active voice. Choose strong verbs and nouns. Show don’t tell.

But are these the right rules? Do they put the focus on what most matters? Is there another — even better — approach?

Research by scientists today shows there is. Thanks to the work of psychologists and neuroscientists using MRIs, EEGs, PETs and other tools, we can observe in never-before-seen detail what entices readers to read and listeners to listen. We now know how readers respond to simple words (versus complex), to specific language (versus abstract), to aesthetic features (versus literal ones), to metaphor (versus plain language), and more.

All of the research points to a single principle: You can actually write in a way that rewards our primal learning needs, prompting the release of pleasing chemicals in the reader’s “reward circuit,” a cluster of midbrain regions that drive desire and behavior. The first chemical out of the gate is dopamine, released when your neurons sense a cue for a likely reward. If the reward pays off, eventually a half dozen pleasure hotspots may glow.

You can craft a winning communication strategy that specifically taps the reward circuit embedded within our hunter-gatherer brains.  Here are five tactics:

Keep it simple: People may say they love complexity, but they’re usually praising wine, not prose. So favor simple words, simple sentences, and above all, distilling simple concepts from complex ones.

Princeton University scientist Daniel Oppenheimer researched how readers viewed complexity. He asked 71 Stanford University students to assess two written passages. One was composed of simple words, the other, complex. Both said the same thing. The students, quizzed later, consistently said the authors of the complex passage were less intelligent.

Research has even shown that it literally pays to keep your writing simple:  Researchers Byoung-Hyoun Hwang and Hugh Hoikwang Kim used a computer to rank the readability of shareholder reports from closed-end investment companies. Their findings: Companies that issue reports that are hard to read traded at a 2.5% discount to competitors.

So divide your big sentences in two, omit unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, cut useless transitions, and omit caveats that clutter your message. Make your writing accessible.

Keep it specific: Concrete details light up neurons that process smell, sight, sound, and motion. Your brain, as it turns out, yearns for full-bodied stimuli — and then it runs an internal multimedia show.

Scientists have shown that when people in MRI scanners read words like garlic, cinnamon, and jasmine, their olfactory circuits light up.  The same thing happens with sight, sound, and motion. So write as if you’re scripting lines for readers’ internal cinema.

Keep it stirring: You may think you persuade people with logic, not emotion, but our brains process emotions much faster than thoughts. Each emotion also comes programmed with reflexive reactions and motivations — fear, for example, prompting dry mouth and the urge to run, which served our hunter-gatherer ancestors who needed to outrun fires and snakes.

The lesson is that how your words make people feel shapes what they understand. Emotion and language deliver meaning together. The leaner you are on emotion, the slower readers are on comprehension.

Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman tracked the virality of 7,000 New York Times articles. Stories carrying emotions — anger, awe, anxiety, surprise — got 34% more shares, and those with positive emotions did best of all. So at least pair your logic with some zeal. And favor metaphors as a potent way to do so.

Keep it social: Even hints of connection count.  Experiments with poems, for example, show that a social signal as slight as a quotation mark — to indicate someone speaking — engages people’s reward circuitry. We are driven to seek out social cues as hungrily as any other.

So flavor your writing with your voice, character, and experience. Self-revelation — measured and apt — connects readers to you and turns on rewards.

An overlooked way to keep it more social is to write in the second person, (i.e. “you”). Research on song lyrics and poems found that people preferred those that spoke directly to the audience. No other pronoun, “he,” “she,” or “they,” has the same power to create a sense of social connection.

Keep it story-driven: Evolutionarily, stories are believed to have served as a primary vehicle for sharing lessons. We’re wired to ask, “What did she do next?” And “what happened?” So play to your readers’ thirst with whodunnit or how-did-it narratives.

Telling stories can literally pay off. For example, researchers who looked at two kinds of business crowdfunding campaigns found that those with richer narratives earned higher marks for entrepreneur credibility, legitimacy, and intentions of people to invest and share. The implication: No stories, no funding!

Tastes vary, of course, but we’re all affected by basic evolutionary drives. Ultimately readers don’t listen to what you say because they like your style. They listen because they love how you reward them in the ancient midbrain. That principle ties all the rules of great communication together.

So, the next time you’re struggling for the right words, turn not just to your teachers’ advice. Turn inward as well to your ancient muse and ask, “What would a hunter-gatherer read?”

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