No matter whether you’re writing a sales page, a blog post, a chapter in a book, or even a speech, you want your arguments to be forceful and compelling.
In today’s blog post, you’re going to discover a persuasive writing technique that’s super powerful but also easy to implement.
I bet you’ve already seen it used countless times in television commercials.
Imagine, for example, a commercial for a product called Weed Destroyer.
The beginning of the commercial shows a husband and wife before they’ve discovered the product.
Dandelions and crabgrass cover their brown lawn. The husband and wife are rather ridiculously trying to pull them all up by hand. Beads of sweat stand out on their forehead.
But then they discover the new Weed Destroyer.
They spray it on their lawn and, instantaneously, those pesky weeds disappear. The grass is as lush and green as the Augusta National golf course.
The husband and wife are all smiles as they throw a barbecue for their friends while their kids happily play soccer in the grass.
(Apparently, Weed Destroyer makes the husband and wife more popular and better parents too.)
Did you identify the persuasive technique?
It was that compelling use of “before” and “after” storytelling.
This storytelling structure is used in countless ads.
As you can imagine, the writers of these TV commercials use this structure because they know how effective it is.
In fact, I’d be surprised if you ever saw an ad for a fitness or diet product that didn’t use it. There’s always the “before” image of a person who’s unfit and overweight, and then their magical transformation to lean and muscular.
This structure is powerfully persuasive because it helps us visualize the transformation that will happen when we buy a product or service.
And, of course, it isn’t only effective for selling things. You can use it anytime you want to make an argument more compelling.
However, in our writing, we usually only have our words to work with when we want to paint images in the minds of our readers.
Sometimes we might be able to include “before” and “after” photos, but often this just isn’t possible or doesn’t work with the topic we’re writing about.
So in order to harness the power of “before” and “after” storytelling, we need to use a writing technique I call “visualization”.
With the visualization technique, you can dramatize the “before” and “after” sequence in your writing just like they do on TV.
What is the Visualization Technique?
In a nutshell, the visualization technique is a descriptive passage written in the second-person (the perspective of the reader) where you picture what will happen if the reader does or does not take a course of action.
With the visualization technique, your reader becomes intimately involved in your piece of writing. They’re no longer a passive bystander but are suddenly drawn into your piece and see the effects of their actions.
Let’s take a look at several examples of the visualization technique in action and how we can make it most effective.
The Visualization Technique in Action
Here’s the technique in action in legendary copywriter Claude Hopkins’s 1921 ad for Pepsodent toothpaste. He’s describing the current problem facing his reader before they discover his product:
There is on your teeth a viscous film. You can feel it with your tongue. It clings to teeth, enters crevices and stays. That film is the teeth’s great enemy. It dims them and destroys them. The toothbrush fails to end it, for the ordinary toothpaste cannot dissolve it. So for months between your dental cleaning it may do ceaseless damage…It holds the acid in contact with the teeth to cause decay.
Were you able to feel that viscous film on your teeth?
Hopkins loaded his sentences with sensory words so that you’d be able to experience exactly what he was describing.
Sensory words are descriptive words that engage your readers’ five senses. They make your readers touch, taste, smell, hear, and see your descriptions.
For example, Hopkins used the words “viscous” (touch), “dim” (sight), and “acid” (taste).
This article in The New York Times details how recent studies have revealed that the brain doesn’t make “much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
So when Hopkins described your tongue feeling that viscous film on your teeth, your brain really did try to feel it.
Essentially, by visualizing with sensory words the reader’s current problem, Hopkins emphasized the urgent need for a solution. (I share more descriptive writing techniques in this post).
Let’s look at another example.
This is the visualization technique in action in a 1929 Rolls-Royce ad. It was the most effective Rolls-Royce ad of all time, selling more cars off the floor than any other:
Step into a Rolls-Royce, grumpy and weary from a day at the office. The car cradles your tired body like a lounge chair at home. The roar of the city may be all around you–you move in a well of silence. Rough roads may lie ahead–you take them without a tremor. Instead of riding, you float! Restfulness almost as complete as dreamless slumber! You can drive 300 miles in a Rolls-Royce without fatigue.
Notice how the writer doesn’t only describe the Rolls-Royce as a comfortable car. It will also be an antidote to the stress at the office.
Finally, here is perhaps the most famous use of the visualization technique in history. These are several sentences from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice…will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…
With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Using the visualization technique, Dr. King painted a picture of a world in which his solution had already been carried out. It inspired hope and fervor in the hearts and minds of his audience.
To wrap up, let’s dig a little deeper into why the visualization technique coupled with the “before” and “after” structure is so powerfully persuasive.
First, when you picture the reader’s current status quo, it makes them feel the severity of the problem that they’re grappling with. It brings the problem to the forefront of their mind in a tangible way.
They realize that their current actions are not solving the problem (and might be making it worse).
It also helps you demonstrate your empathy with their present condition. You’re showing that you understand the difficulties they’re struggling with.
Second, when you visualize a possible future, it makes them experience how life would be different if they had the solution. It’s as if, for a moment, they actually have a lush green lawn or a sparkling white smile or a gleaming Rolls-Royce in their garage.
Or, if you’re trying to sell them on an idea, it’s as if they really lived in a free and just society.
It’s almost like when you sign up for a free trial. Once you’ve experienced using the helpful product or service, it becomes part of your life, and you usually don’t end up canceling because you don’t want to give it up.
Similarly, visualizing for your readers with sensory words what their life will be like after they implement your solution to their problem makes them feel like they’ve implemented the solution already.
They’ve experienced what it’s like to buy your product or service or adopt that amazing productivity tip that will change their lives.
They don’t want to return to that miserable previous life that you’ve already pictured.
Instead, they’re fired up and ready to take action.
This persuasive technique is powerful so remember to use it wisely.
Like any persuasion technique, it should only be used when you’re attempting to convince someone to do something that is in their own best interest, something that will truly help them and make their life better.
How will you use the visualization technique in your own writing? Let me know in the comments.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!