Why writing in the second person is so motivating

writing second person youYou need to read this. You deserve better. You won’t believe what happens in this video clip. You’ve heard it all before – and that’s because it works. Writing copy in the second-person engages the reader. It makes your connection personal. And it’s been said a thousand times in a thousand copywriting tips. But now a research study is claiming that it doesn’t just help customers to engage with a piece of text…it helps people to engage with themselves.

Why we write copy in the second person

This saturated copy tip has a number of clear merits. When you write in the second person, and people read “you”, it appeals directly to self-interest. No matter how big your status and how great an expert you are in whatever you’re writing about, it’s got to be about themselves for people to really care (bar, of course, certain exceptional celebrity examples).

When you write in the second-person, it also gives you more pause to think about the target audience, as you stop and think that maybe everything that’s applicable with an “I” doesn’t translate to the “you”. Your opinion of “I think this amazing”, to which most people may remark “Good for you.”, sounds remarkably bold when you make it “You’ll think this is amazing.” Because then you’re either intrigued, asking “What why?”, or you’re just that little bit happier, thinking “I hope so!”

It’s more than a marketing trick though – this speaks to people on a personal, motivating level. “I think something” is personal and subjective, open to criticism – “you will think it” gives people more permission to start caring.

How the second person encourages motivation

Sanda Dolcos of the Department of Psychology in the University of Illinois has completed a study into exactly this. It looks at the difference between talking to yourself in the first person and second person to boost morale, the difference between saying “I can do it!” and “You can do it!”. With 95 undergrad psychology students at her disposal, she placed her participants in a story scenario and told half to write their advice to themselves in the first-person, half in the second-person. They then had to complete a series of anagrams and, shock, the second-person motivated group achieved better results.

If that sounds tenuous, a second study was carried out with 143 students, this time giving themselves advice specificallyrelating to completing anagrams. The result – second-person motivated students not only completed more anagrams, but offered that they’d be happy to do more in the future. One more for luck? A third experiment, with 135 students, encouraged exercise advice with one group saying “I” and the other “You”. The yous had it, again, reporting more exercise over the next two weeks and a generally more positive attitude.

This study, apparently the first experimental demonstration of the effectiveness of second-person self-talk, suggests people use the second-person to talk to themselves in more demanding situations. The researchers speculated it could be due to cuing memories of receiving support, bringing a social aspect into the advice received, rather than just relying on your own motivation. Of course we, as copywriters, know that any statement you hear or read is going to be more engaging when it refers to “you”, not “I” – even, it seems, when the “I” is yourself. Try it yourself; when you’re sat home mulling over a decision and tell yourself “I want some cake”, feelings of self-loathing and accusations of weakness tend to seep in. Tell yourself “You want some cake” and the decision is suddenly that much more neutral. You’re a little more free to just respond “Yes…yes you do…”

Though note the caveat that, in the long run, this reliance on the second-person will make you sound slightly mad.

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