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The secret to understanding (and leveraging) human behavior

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Yesterday we ran a quick thought experiment.

I mentioned how, hidden in a short poem, we could find an important lesson that can help us boost the converting power of our copy.

In particular we could see how in the second version of the poem something changed to make it more powerful.

Let’s look at them again…

Here’s version 1:

When I chant,

Both Buddha and self

Cease to exist. There is only the voice that says,

Namu Amida Butsu.

Short, concise, clear.

But not enough…

Now, version 2:

“When I chant,

Both Buddha and self

Cease to exist.

Namu Amida Butsu,

Namu Amida Butsu.

Notice what changed.

They removed a sentence and added a repetition at the end.

But what else, really?

What, did the master approve the second version?

Before sharing my thoughts, here’s what some of you observed:

  • “I think it sounds and flows better” – Mark
  • “Visually it’s more appealing which in turn might make it look easier to read (and the mind absorbs it better?)” – Jessica, Copywriter
  • “We humans like repetition, but I think the second Namu Amida Butsu really improved the overall balance of the text (and they both got one dedicated chant each, which makes sense (probably)). – Christopher, Growth Marketing Manager at Laerdal
  • “Does it create a clearer, more vivid picture perhaps because it’s focused more on the final chant repetition?” – Adam

All great observations and true.

I like the points on the visual change and the repetition.

Often, these subtleties and the combination of UX and copy make copy more powerful.

Context is everything.

But there’s also something deeper buried somewhere.

I’d let one of my mentors “Rory Sutherland” explain:

“Learning how to disentangle the literal from the lateral meaning is essential to solving cryptic crosswords, and it is also essential to understanding human behaviour.” (From the book “Alchemy”)

When it comes to how the poem above changed, I think the core improvement and what makes it more impactful, is that they added lateral meaning to it.

And they did it by removing the sentence “There is only the voice that says”.

What’s the lateral meaning here?

The writer says that when he chants, things “cease to exist”, right?

If he wants to truly be honest in his writing he should mirror that in this written chant too.

So, he shouldn’t have to say that “there is only a voice”…

He should simply use that voice (twice now for emphasis).

An example of “Show, don’t tell”.

He switches from the role of the writer to that of the protagonist of the story.

After “cease to exist” there’s no need to say more…

Just “Namu Amida Butsu, “.

It’s something that, if we think more about it, could help us write better copy. Copy that reaches the depths of our prospects’ beliefs and desires.

A few questions you can ask yourself to use this:

  • (after your claim) So, what?
  • How can I cut anything superficial and jump right in the middle of the action? (look up “In medias res”)
  • How can I use more color, pattern, texture and shine (CPTS) to transport the reader into the story?

What you’ll find is that everything you write starts getting multidimensional.

That’s when the lateral meaning complements the literal.

That’s when your prospects truly resonate with what you’re saying.

Try it and feel free to share it. I’d love to help you use this.


Someone just wrote in after finding out about my story.

Final creeper move aside (just kidding 😄), great subject line.

Love getting this feedback.

If you have any, please share it!

Quote and reflection of the day:

“Great good is said to be like water,

Sustaining life with no conscious striving,

Flowing naturally, providing nourishment,

Found even in places

Which desiring man rejects.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Morning reflection

The best things in life, those that are good for us, come naturally. Something can be good for us but we may not see it that way at first. When we embrace it, we let energy flow, and life flows accordingly.

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brain dump?

Every week I write about what I’m learning at my copywriting/UX desk ,with fun, insightful and quirky stories.

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