How to write copy to make people care (and sell to our 450 million year-old lizard brain)

Did you know that our decisions are made by our “lizard brain” or “old brain”, a brain that doesn’t even understand words?

Some people call the old brain the first brain, because it appeared first – before we grew a middle brain and new brain. The old brain is the first to develop in utero. The new brain doesn’t even develop until age 24. (Grumpy old people : proven correct.)

While the new brain is busy thinking and the middle brain feeling, it’s the primitive old brain that makes the decision. Like a boss.

Power Words

To market to the old brain, use the most direct, simple, arresting, visual words you have. These are “power words” and copywriters have been using them for decades to spark emotions; poets, for ever.
The emotions ignited include: fear, encouragement, lust, anger, greed, and safety.

Power words carry force, yes, but also persuasion, suggestion, inspiration, and security.

David Peoples, in his book “Presentations Plus”, lists the 12 most persuasive words in the English language as these:

  1. You
  2. Money
  3. Save
  4. New
  5. Results
  6. Easy
  7. Health
  8. Safety
  9. Love
  10. Discover
  11. Proven
  12. Guarantee


The Guardian Newspaper has recently added power words to its style guide for climate change. So, instead of “climate change” we have “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown”. For “global warming”, see “global heating”. Other changes are  “wildlife” rather than “biodiversity”, “fish populations” instead of “fish stocks” and “climate science denier” instead of “climate sceptic”.

Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, explains: “The phrase ‘climate change’, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.” Certainly, difficult concepts need sharp, dynamic descriptions. Even if Global Heating sounds like my furnace installation & repair company.

And, if these new terms catch on, will Donald Trump be introduced at future events as “President Donald Trump, climate science denier”?

Punch that lizard brain in the face

It’s all very well adding power words but what if the reader just doesn’t care?

The Climate Crisis has been suffering from apathy for decades. It seems that our brains just aren’t wired to respond to slow moving or abstract threats.  Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert calls the brain “essentially a get-out-of-the-way machine”. Great for sports, not so great for planning a retirement or long-term plans to conserve the planet.

So what can rouse us out of our human apathy and make us care? According to Daniel Gilbert, our ancient alarm bells are set off by only 4 types of threat.


  1. Intentional

    To truly perceive a threat, humans need to put a face on it. As social mammals, our brains have networks that are devoted entirely to understanding others. We are obsessed with humans – humans stalking humans. The smallest intentional incident affects us more than the largest natural incident. That’s why we worry more about anthrax (which kills zero people a year) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people).  

  2. Immoral

    If something doesn’t cause our blood to boil and arouse our moral indignation, it simply doesn’t affect us as much. Daniel Gilbert suggests that if “eating puppies” caused global warming, people would be massing in the streets in protest.  Eating puppies causes us to have a visceral moral reaction. Global warming, sadly, does not.

  3. Imminent

    The human brain evolved to respond to immediate threats but may completely miss more gradual warning signs. We respond quickly to clear and present danger.

  4. Instantaneous

    We accept changes that happen slowly that we would never accept if they happen instantaneously. We yawn at the slow melting of the glaciers. If it happened overnight, we might take to the streets.

How to write so that people will care

Patrick Renvoise and Christophe Morin suggest six ways in which we can persuade the old brain, or activate what they call the “buy buttons in your customer’s brain”.


  • Me, Me, Me

    The old brain operates only on one frequency – WIIFM FM. That’s the “What’s In It For Me” channel, and it operates 24 hours an day. Think of the old brain as the centre of ME, with no patience or empathy for anything that doesn’t concern it directly. It’s not that people are irrational or emotionless – that stuff just happens at the new and middle brain. If you’re ever wondered why copywriting 101 is to write to the audience, using “you” instead of “We”, that’s because we are trying to engage the old brain. If you’re not speaking to your prospect about their pain points and how your offering will benefit them, you’re in trouble.

  • Use contrast

    The old brain is wired to pay attention to change. For thousands of years, this part of the brain has relied on visual and emotional contrast to decide between what’s unsafe and safe. The contrast principle states that, “We notice difference between things, not absolute measures.” Contrast makes it easy for your customers to understand the difference between products or services. That’s why ads use so many “before” and “after” stories and “poor” vs “good” comparisons. Contrast is best remembered by showing visually. A study in Dr. John Medina’s book “Brain Rules” found that after 72 hours only 10% of people could remember information delivered in words – but add a picture and that recall skyrockets to 65%.

  • Be clear

Using complicated words slows the old brain down. Too much decoding work may result in the information being sidelined to the new brain.  The old brain is constantly scanning for what is familiar and friendly, concrete and established. In your writing, use familiar situations. To introduce something new, use analogies. Think easy-to-grasp, concrete ideas like “more money”, “unbreakable”, and “24 hour turnaround time”. Avoid abstract words like “scalable architecture”, “flexible solution”, or “integrated approach”.

  • Beginning and End

The “old brain” focuses on the beginning and end of a narrative, often nodding off in the middle.  With its survivalist mentality, the reptilian brain doesn’t adjust to change well. To capture its attention, your message needs to have a powerful start and a powerful close. Make your most important argument at the beginning and repeat it at the end. Check that your web copy is scannable, so that the reader can jump to the section they’re actually interested in.  Use descriptive subheadings, blocks, bullet points, images, and lists to break your content up.

  • Show it

The “language” of the primal brain is visual. Visual processing hits the old brain first, leading to a very fast and effective connection to the decision maker. Possibly this is because the optic nerve is 40 times faster than the auditory nerve, which connects the ear to the brain. Neuroscience shows that within about 2 milliseconds of seeing a snake-like object, the old brain warns of danger and causes you to react. The neocortex takes an entire 500 seconds to confirm that it was, in fact, a stick. If you want the reptile brain to latch onto your message, use visuals.

  • Use emotions

The primal brain is only triggered by emotions. Emotions process sensory input in only one-fifth the time it takes our conscious, cognitive brain. We have gut reactions in 3 seconds or less. And it seems that this emotional reaction echoes louder in our brain than does our rational response. We remember events better when we’ve experienced them with stronger emotions.

People don’t buy things, we buy feelings and experiences. Write copy to relive consumer scepticism by demonstrating your skills, knowledge, and track record. Create copy that stresses social proof including testimonials, endorsements, and product reviews. Make your prospects feel: happy, sad, afraid, connected, angry.

Don’t be afraid to punch that lizard brain in the face.