August 24, 2015
Are you familiar with the most powerful word in marketing? It’s not the four-letter word typically associated with that claim.
For years, you’ve probably heard that the most powerful word is “free.” Other people will suggest that it’s “sex” or something similarly salacious. But the fact remains that no word is as effective at grabbing attention, creating connections, and motivating actions as a simple three-letter pronoun.
It’s you. Not you personally, but the word “you.” And the reason it works so well is that we all do take it personally. When someone uses “you” in conversation, you subconsciously perk up in the same way you do when you hear your name.
I’m sure you’ve been at a crowded party or restaurant in which the room buzzed with a steady drone of conversation. When you hear your name — even if the speaker is addressing someone across the room who happens to share your name — it cuts through the clutter as though they shouted at you. That’s why effective salespeople and customer service professionals frequently use the names of people with whom they’re conversing. “Now, Bill, have you considered an extended warranty?” Our brains are wired to sharpen awareness of our surroundings whenever they detect the sound of our names.
“You” has a similar effect. It tells our brains that someone is sending a message that’s intended specifically for us. So our subconscious prods us to pay closer attention to the rest of the message.
“You” is even more effective because so many companies and organizations use it sparingly, if at all. If you read their websites and marketing materials, you’ll see that they spend a lot of time talking about “we” and “us” and “our.” Professionals and executives have a similar tendency to overuse “I,” “me,” and “my.”
However, if your goal is to connect with and influence someone else, talking about yourself isn’t going to get you as far as talking about them. It doesn’t mean that you can’t share what’s important; it’s just that we humans tend to pay closer attention when that important information appears to be about us.
Consider the following language that could have been lifted from the average business-to-business brochure: “Our model AW-1126 veeblefetzer reduces radish processing time and minimizes waste with our unique cradle system. It allows for faster positioning of the radish and provides faster coring.” Now rewrite it with a focus on the reader: “You’ll save time and reduce waste with the AW-1126 veeblefetzer, thanks to the cradle that lets you position and core radishes more quickly.” Instead of simply describing the product and its benefits, focusing on “you” puts it into the user’s hands. The reader’s brain fills in the images, allowing the reader to “try” the product.
Some people are hesitant to use this powerful word in written communication because they remember their seventh-grade English teacher prohibiting it. It’s true that when you’re writing a formal essay or term paper, you’re not supposed to use the second person. So instead of stating “You need to know about the amazing rainforest,” we’re taught to write things like “One needs to know about the amazing rainforest.”
But many of the rules that govern academic writing don’t apply to the world outside school. It’s not only acceptable to use “you” in business writing and your day-to-day correspondence; it’s actually far more communicative. In these contexts, “one needs to know” comes across as snooty, pompous and somewhat impolite.
Here’s an easy way to predict how well your website or marketing materials will connect with readers. Count the number of times you use “you” and “your” in the copy. Then count the number of times you use “we,” “us,” and “our.” If the first number is larger, you’ve done a great job of reaching out to the reader. But if the proportions are reversed, rewrite it so that there’s a bigger share of “yous.” The revised version will probably sound more natural and comfortable, but more important, it will allow you to connect with your reader in a more personal way.