Pay attention to what your brain just did. You just imagined a fire being lit, didn’t you?

“Sure,” you think. “But you told me to imagine it.”

Ah, but that’s my point here: I actually didn’t.

The headline is declarative, not imperative; it states something, but it doesn’t tell you to do anything. Your brain pictured fire all on its own, just because the right words were put in front of you.

Even in this multimedia age, copywriting can tap into the human psyche just as fast as images. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words—except that (A) you still have to consciously examine a picture and (B) the headline above does give your brain a picture, but in 4 words instead of 1000.

Still, it gets better, because I’m betting your brain wasn’t just picturing fire; it was also “unpacking” the metaphor comparing words to fires. In other words, the headline doesn’t just provide a mental image; it also provides an argument (which, again, I’m betting you see and “get” by this point).

I’ve invented none of this myself. This is just the power of sensory detail and concrete imagery, which live on the border between our brain’s sophisticated language center and the deeper “lizard brain” which is hard-wired to respond immediately to its surroundings.

Mental images are a great way to grab attention. They’re also a great way to sustain attention, since you can sprinkle little pictures in as many places as you want (as long as you’re not repetitive or distracting from the point). Last but not least, they’re shortcuts for understanding ideas; the mental image of “lighting fires” borrows what we already understand about fire (light, warmth, power, pain, etc.) and applies it to something new.

Whenever you’re writing copy, try to ask yourself: what “pictures” does this bring to mind? Whatever I’m feeling or thinking, where have I “seen” it before? How can I connect this idea to one of my five senses?

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The main points have been made (so you’re welcome to move on), but it’s pretty simple to start applying this. All you have to do is start picking out the concrete/sensory language in your everyday reading—and trust me, it’s there. Even the Wall Street Journal has a wealth of mental imagery (because it’s well-written).

Since it’s Friday, here are two fun examples of everyday language made far stronger by liberal use of concrete and sensory imagery:

Owen Gleiberman’s review of Pulp Fiction

The joke is undercut by the raw ferocity of [Samuel L.] Jackson’s performance. He just about lights fires with his gremlin eyes, and he transforms his speeches into hypnotic bebop soliloquies. Jules the loquacious hit man is the soul and spirit of Pulp Fiction — fury reined in by order. During the final sequence, when he holds his gun on a scruffy thief and tells him, “You’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men… But I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd,” it’s enough to give you a shiver.

Here, in a flash, is the film’s theme: the closet morality of scoundrels. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino creates a dizzying spectacle of life at its darkest, only to release us, with a wink, into the light.

Sheriff Bell’s dream in No Country For Old Men

I was a’horseback, goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold, and there was snow on the ground and [my father] rode past me and kept on goin’ — never said nothin’ goin’ by, just rode on past. He… had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past, I seen he was carryin’ fire, in a horn the way people used to do, and I — I could see the horn from the light inside of it, ‘bout the color of the moon. And in the dream, I knew that he was… goin’ on ahead. He was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there.

And then I woke up.

As I said, I didn’t invent this. Nobody did.

There’s nothing new under the sun here. But if I can cram (at least) a half-dozen mental images into this article about copywriting, maybe without you fully noticing, you can probably add one or two more to your own.

Start with the headline.

— Kevin

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