When you write content for the Internet you have to keep in mind two audiences: One, those eight-legged bots working for Google and Bing, the web-crawlers, whose never-ending indexing of the Internet decides whether you go up —or down— on the search engines ranking. Two, actual people.
The web-crawlers will read anything.
They have no taste. You don’t have to use pretty words, make your lines rhyme or be witty. As long as you include relevant keywords in the headers and body of your text, the text is original, and there is a lot of it, the spider bots will like it. The text doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece, it just has to be readable.
But then, your second audience, human readers, are the ones with the money. They do have taste, and they do like things neat and pretty and more important: interesting.
Humans want engaging text.
We understand how engagement works.
(To the Neurological Level)
Good writing isn’t just about having excellent prose. Good writing is about efficiently delivering a persuasive message and causing a reaction that can be felt. Good writing is that which arrests attention and doesn’t let it go.
Some psychologists say that the brain is lazy and that’s why it so easily disengages, and we get bored. That is an oversimplification. The brain isn’t lazy; the brain is efficient. Time and attention are precious resources, why waste them in stuff when you could be collecting rewards? The brain does not avoid challenging tasks. Watch any teen obsessed with Fortnite. The brain avoids unrewarding tasks. Watch any teen asked to take out the garbage. Boredom has a function: to help us survive. Those urges to pull out your phone and check what’s going on in the world of Facebook during a long weekly meeting originate in your unconscious telling you to go get a prize. What kind of prize? A shot of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that motivates us to do things. Why hire us? Because we know how to milk the ventral tegmental area in your brain for dopamine.
Your brain is a predicting machine, always trying to figure out what’s there for you. Is it good? How good? Good like a free bag of peanuts or good like an upgrade to first class? I’m not sure if to take it. Is it bad? Keep it away from me! Is it neither good nor bad but just neutral? I’ll pass. The brain continually compares the cost of remaining engaged to the value of the rewards you may obtain in exchange for your attention. Now, the costs of investing your time and attention on a task are not metabolic costs. The brain isn’t trying to save energy by thinking less; engaging in in-depth elaboration isn’t much more expensive than just resting. The costs of engagement are opportunity costs, the rewards you could obtain by investing your time doing anything else. When you pull out your phone to check Facebook during that long meeting you do so because your unconscious has decided that checking your friends’ latest posts may be more rewarding. But that was an important meeting, you’ll argue. How can silly cat videos be more important? The value of the potential rewards is a subjective value, not an objective one, determined by how much you feel you need the object of your attention. Feel, rather than think because the decision to remain engaged is one heavily influenced by your feelings, not just by cold reason. After all, reason, has the ability to make sense of things, the concoction of information stored in memory, that comes from your senses, and your emotions’ advice.
Feelings, as the product of an emotional episode, are the way your unconscious tells consciousness what’s important so that consciousness can direct you to take the right steps. Think about your days in college. You had a whole week to work on that dull report, but you spent all of your free time during the week playing Mario Kart with your friends. Friday came, and you went to a party. Saturday morning you were too hungover to do any work, and then there was another party, which you couldn’t miss because all of your friends would be there. You slept most of the day on Sunday but then—oh shoot, the report is due on Monday! So you pulled an all-nighter, and did a half mediocre job that gets you a D. Was it worth all the time goofing off? No, but you didn’t know that at the time. You underestimated how much time you would need, and you didn’t know bad it would feel to spend the weekend hungover, have to work all night on Sunday, and never anticipated how bad it would feel to get a low grade because you didn’t even imagine you would get a bad grade. Next time, your unconscious made sure to assign a heavier weight to expected negative feelings and informed consciousness accordingly so that consciousness could decide how to allocate time better and avoid those negative feelings. It doesn’t sound like your unconscious is that smart, huh? Your parents warned you about this. It should have known better. Well, if you think about all the things your unconscious does automatically, for instance making sure that your heart keeps beating, that your lungs keep breathing and that you don’t die, it is a super smart and efficient system. But the unconscious is not that flexible, and it’s worried primarily about how your body is currently doing and getting rewarded now: More sugar? Sure, one needs calories to survive! The job of consciousness is to scrutinize the information provided by unconscious processes about your current state and compare it with possible future states to make appropriate plans. Looks delicious, but I need to fit in my gown, I think I’ll pass on that extra slice.
Interesting, huh? But we’re talking about writing engaging copy, what does this have to do with it? Well, the secret to writing engaging content is not just to capture attention but to reign in consciousness. Consciousness is a difficult kingdom to rule because consciousness is a kingdom too easy to conquer. Consciousness evolved in a ruthless world, where any bad step could be your last. Thus, consciousness work is not only to make decisions about the future but to make those decisions fast. Sure, taking your time to review all pertinent information before making a decision that will affect the rest of our lives sounds wise—the decisions of whether you should or should not move to sunny Los Angeles, California, may follow years of daydreaming—but most of our conscious choices have to do with the immediate future. Running on stilettos to catch the elevator? One second, max. Your choice for lunch? No more than a few minutes or you will alienate all your friends. Because consciousness must make decisions fast, nature provided consciousness with rather small storage capacity, that of working memory, about seven items plus or minus two, so that the process of decision making wouldn’t take forever.
Then again, consciousness isn’t picky. The contents of consciousness change continuously, as our attention changes focus. One moment you’re thinking about cats, the next about sports, the next about blueberry pancakes. What determines the focus of our attention and therefore the contents of consciousness are emotions, preprogrammed automatic responses aimed to increase our chances of survival. Emotions translate into automatic movement and the release of hormones to prepare your body for action. Feelings provide consciousness a report on the effect of those hormones: You see a HUGE spider. You automatically jump. Your body releases the stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. You feel the fear in your chest. You realize you’re scared. Time to make a conscious decision: should you squash that little fellow? Then another feeling kicks in: guilt. Maybe you could catch the spider and release it in the garden. Spiders eat bugs. They aren’t bad, are they? Who am I to decide who lives and dies?
The point is: Emotions determine the contents of consciousness. Your current feelings, as the products of emotions, are the soldiers that conquer consciousness. You cannot control your audience’s feelings because emotions are automatic responses, but you can provoke them. How? Well, we shouldn’t reveal all our writing secrets, but here’s a taste: By establishing goals, setting up challenges that will prevent people from making accurate predictions of the consequence of their decisions and bounding those challenges by rules.
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