Bringing More Emotion into Your Writing — From the Inside Out

Great content and copywriting builds emotional resonance. But how does that happen? And do you need to be a “genius” writer to create it?

Handling emotion in your writing is a favorite topic of many writers — from novelists to copywriters and including those of us who write content for the web.

But sometimes we mistake professionalism for whitewashing, and we miss out on using the full range of emotions to create content worth reading and sharing.

I recently saw the wonderful movie Inside Out, and it sparked some thoughts about how professional writers bring emotion to our work.

In this 20-minute episode, I talk about:

  • When too much joy gets annoying
  • Why sadness, not joy, is the “marketing expert”
  • Managing fear: the timeless watchman
  • Anger: dangerous but useful
  • Disgust: the surprising “ringer” that can make content work

The Show Notes

Bringing More Emotion into Your Writing — from the Inside Out

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Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me yet, I am a co-founder and the chief content officer for Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

When Too Much Joy Gets Annoying

This weekend I saw the film Inside Out, which I thought was very good. It’s been out for a while, but I do have a couple of spoilers in this. If you haven’t seen it yet and you don’t like spoilers, you can pause and come back to this one later.

If you have not seen the movie, I’m going to try to make this accessible. You don’t have to have seen it to get what I’m talking about because of the way that the movie was structured.

It’s about a young girl, and she’s going through a difficult time in her life. Her five core emotions are embodied as characters. We have Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Really, the core theme of the movie is reconciling that full range of emotions in order to be a functional person.

Sadness, the character Sadness, needs to be able to take the control panel sometimes, and this is expressed in a literal way in the movie. The main character, Joy, is responsible for our heroine, the young girl, for her positive emotions. The way that Joy is characterized is somebody that we’ve all met. It’s that person who cannot accept anything other than happiness and rainbows and who tries to fix things every time there’s any kind of a shadow.

I do think that keeping mostly to the positive side of things is a good quality. It’s a useful quality. It tends to be professionally useful. The reality is that when you’re relentlessly positive like that, it gets grating, and it gets fake.

So I’m going to talk today about the roles that different emotional angles or different emotional expressions can play in good writing, but beyond that, in good content and good content marketing. It is, after all, theoretically what this podcast is about. It’s a marketing and business podcast.

Of course, this kind of emotional range is important for any kind of writing, and I would also argue that it is important for your social media presence: for who you are, who you choose to share with the outside world on the social channels.

I have created content for a number of organizations, for very small organizations, start-ups, and for larger, more established, more corporate kinds of environments. Something anybody who’s ever worked in that corporate environment knows is that a lot of business content falls into this trap of being relentlessly positive, so everything is a superlative.

I used to have a position where I joked that I would paint all of the different superlatives that we used in our web copy on the wall — world class, premiere, luxurious, et cetera, et cetera — because there were never any other adjectives being used in our material. When everything is a superlative, and when everything is positive and rosy, the whole communication just frankly looks fake.

Telling the truth in your content still stands out. It’s sad but true. Managing expectations is priceless. Letting people know the truth and giving people a more complete, more honest picture of the environment can be a tremendous, tremendous asset in your content and your copy.

I was talking with an old friend, and her company just rolled out a total website redesign for their customers. That total website redesign was not perfect, because these things are not ever perfect, but because they have this cultural inability to talk about things that aren’t perfect, they couldn’t manage the expectations with the customers.

They couldn’t roll out and say, “Here are the benefits of the new way we’ve structured the site. Here’s why we did it this way, and please let us know what could work better, what’s not there yet, what’s not really working for you.”

Instead of being able to have that kind of connection and conversation with their customers, who are very valued and very honored by the company, they roll out something, and they put a lot of whitewash on it, and they pretend that it’s going to be perfect. Well, it’s not going to be perfect, and it doesn’t help the relationship when you make those kind of statements all the time.

Why Sadness, Not Joy, Is the ‘Marketing Expert’

The Inside Out movie did an awesome job with the character of Sadness, who’s very funny and very relatable. It did a great job of showing that empathy actually doesn’t come from joy. Joy the character — and to some degree, I would argue, joy the emotion — is not where empathy tends to come from.

Empathy come out of sadness. In the film, it’s the character of Sadness who literally sits down next to another character who’s having a very, very hard time. She articulates what he’s feeling. She sits next to him as he mourns his loss, and she helps him through that emotional state so that he can move forward in a constructive way.

When you’re talking with an audience that you’re trying to persuade — it could be prospects, it could be leads, it could be existing customers, it could be candidates for some political action you want people to take — if you speak to their sadness or their pain, that’s going to get you farther than always speaking to the unicorns and the rainbows.

There’s a simplistic sense of this that copywriters have known about for a long time, which is poking that stick in your prospect’s pain. If your prospect has a problem, you get out your rhetorical stick, and you poke at it until it gets worse, until it feels worse, so that you can present the solution.

It’s a well-known copywriting formula called Problem-Agitate-Solve. It’s a very good formula as formulas go. It is a good framework to hang certain kinds of persuasive communication on, and that simple version works well in simple scenarios.

But I think there is a deeper sense that we can explore this. I think that giving voice to your audience’s grief, to their sorrows, is able to convey something that’s deeper than a somewhat cheap copywriting trick can really go. I think the film makes the argument, and I think I would agree with it, that you can’t have a real bond, a real relationship, with someone until you can share their sorrow and not only their joy.

There are some pretty great scenes in the movie where the character of Sadness is so depressed that her legs don’t work, so Joy is having to drag her around this Pixar world. We don’t need to quite get there in our communication. We want to let sorrow, we want to let the shadows of our communication, of our relationship, of our emotional range, play to their strengths.

That means speaking to empathy, to compassion, to that ability and that courage to sit with someone when they’re down as opposed to necessarily wallowing. We don’t want to get to abject depression. We want to get to a space of compassion and empathy.

Managing Fear: The Timeless Watchman

There are some other characters in the film, and the filmmakers were quite thoughtful about what these essential drivers are of the human condition, of human emotional life. And one of them — and there is no copywriting course or even writing course that wouldn’t consider this one — is fear.

Fear is a very old friend of traditional marketing. If you can find the person’s fears, you can speak to those fears in order to persuade. In a not-very-savory way, you can manipulate fears in order to persuade, which I’m not a big fan of.

We’ve all seen those mainstream advertisements of, “If you don’t use the right toothpaste, then you’re going to die alone. You’re never going to get the boy or girl that you want. You’re never going to have the happiness, the love, the success.” So that’s kind of sleazy and disgusting, and people will tend to turn away from that because it is manipulative and because it just makes us feel crummy.

But I don’t think that’s a reason to shy away from fears when we are creating content or we are creating other kinds of writing. Of course, in a very deep, old, ancient sense, fear exists to keep us safe, and the character of Joy points that out in the movie.

Seeking out safety is a very old and very core part of being a person, of being any kind of animal on this planet. We all seek safety. It’s very primal. It’s very important.

I had a conversation earlier on in this podcast with my friend, Annie Pratt, who’s a team and employment expert, and she and I talked a lot about that — creating safety for employees. When you can create safety for someone to come with you and be honest with you and to tell the truth about what’s going on with them, you can really create change. You can really create something better.

It’s not just, of course, for your employees, but it’s for everyone that you’re communicating with, whether it’s on the web or in some other scenario.

Fear is a very useful friend. It’s a very useful place to watch and see, “Where is the audience afraid? Where are these people in our audience afraid?” Either because they don’t feel safe with us, because they’re worried that doing business with us will make them feel dumb — that’s a really important thing to watch out for, when the audience is feeling manipulated, or they’re feeling sold to in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable. It doesn’t feel ethical or honest.

They also don’t feel safe in some aspect of their environment. That’s the whole reason that they might be coming to us, coming to our business, coming to our project or our non-profit — in order to help make things right.

I’m a real believer that business exists to solve problems in this world. We create businesses to help other people solve their problems, and fear is a very good watchman who finds these problems for us, who shows us where they are.

Anger: Dangerous but Useful

I think probably the most fun character in the movie is the character of Anger. It’s really, really well-voiced. It’s really well-written. There’s a wonderful moment in the movie when the Anger character is literally used as a tool to make something happen in the plot that needs to happen.

I think you could make an argument that, psychologically, anger is inflamed sadness. If we get hurt, if we feel pain, and then that sadness never gets addressed, doesn’t get acknowledged, doesn’t get taken care of, then anger starts to take over. The movie has some very fun and very realistic sequences around this.

In terms of your own voice, your own content voice, a human voice and what we might call a ‘human brand’ is going to get angry sometimes. It’s going to be part of the range of what is expressed in most really fully fleshed-out content messages. There are things that your company gets angry at.

I have a friend that goes by the name Kaleo, and I’m going to try to get her on this podcast, because she has a really interesting business story. She gets angry when diet and nutrition gurus exploit people’s sadness, exploit people’s self-doubt about their weight or about their health.

My friend has become something of an avenging angel on the behalf of people that have been, frankly, abused by bad diet advice and dietary extremism. Her message is countered by a lot of positivity, a lot of productivity, a lot of advice, a lot of the positive side, but that shadow side of anger is a really, really potent fuel for her business. It’s a really potent fuel for her message, which is very important to her.

Anger is a very powerful ally. It is not a great full-time driver. Sometimes I see people, especially on Facebook, which is maybe the number-one anger platform. Some people’s content is angry all the time, and it gets very wearing. We just don’t want to be around that voice for an extended period of time. At first, it gets us excited.

Remember I talked about ‘outrage is the methamphetamine of the web?’ It’s energizing, but it’s also toxic, and it wears on us after a while. After a while, we either get pulled into the toxicity, or we walk away from it. It makes great fuel, but it can’t be your only fuel.

Disgust: The Surprising ‘Ringer’ That Can Make Content Work

There’s an interesting choice on the Pixar screenwriters’ agenda. They have a character for disgust, for the emotion of disgust, for the reaction of disgust. Early on, there are very entertaining scenes about Disgust weighing in on whether or not we’re going to eat broccoli as a toddler. Disgust is putting a stop to that.

Later on, she takes on the role as being the arbiter of social groupings: who’s in and who’s out, who’s cool, who’s not cool. How do we fit into that social framework? How do we get into that socially desirable club and stay away from the alternative?

From what I’ve read, I think anthropologists tend to agree that disgust has a lot to do with defining what group we belong in, and defining what group we belong in, as you’ve definitely heard me say in the past, matters a lot on the web, because our culture is becoming very fragmented.

Our culture, the old things that we used to rely on — a church grouping, a neighborhood grouping — these things are weak. Those ties have become quite weak, and we’re looking for new ties, new ways to belong in this world. Belonging is critical, is core, to what we look for as human beings. Disgust has a lot to do with that.

One group of human beings thinks that crickets are just a fine and tasty meal and think that’s a really great thing to eat, and another group of human beings are so repulsed by that that they would literally go hungry rather than eat that. This is a purely cultural construct, yet it’s very powerful.

I can say in my head, “Well, whether or not you eat crickets is just a matter of what culture you’re in. It’s arbitrary,” and yet that disgust part of my brain is really not going there. If there’s any way I can get around it, I’m not doing that.

Anytime we talk about groups and belonging, and especially if we’re going to talk about that driver of disgust, I think there’s a bright side and a dark side that we have to be aware of. So when we start talking about groups, we have to start thinking about bias, and we get into all of the prejudice and the unfairness of the world.

I think it’s really important to handle this thoughtfully, handle it ethically, but at the end of the day, we have to find our people. It’s such a powerful part of why we create content in the first place. We have to find … Sometimes the word ‘tribe’ is used. We have to find that group, that sense of belonging, and then share our values with that group and move forward.

I happen to think that beliefs and values are one of the most powerful things to base your group on. It’s why I really talk about leading with values in your content. Lead with what matters to you, what really matters from your heart.

Of course, it could be you as an individual. When you get to the point where you are the voice of the company, you are the scribe, you are the speaker of that company’s truth, that can get tricky, because companies are very nervous about making that kind of articulation. But when it’s done well, even a big company can get tremendous, tremendous mileage and value out of coming forward with their values and their genuinely stated beliefs.

It is disgust, even though it is not a pretty emotion, that tells us when our beliefs are violated. If you look, if you just notice what disgusts you, that will start to tell you what you believe and what you value.

Of course, there are plenty of things on our planet Earth that are not pretty, and when we start to thoughtfully and mindfully delve into the shadows — not just the bright spots, not just the pretty stuff, but what’s going on in the shadows — we start to create a much more compelling message, a real message that has an opportunity to resonate in a genuine way with your audience.

Now it very well might be that in your project or your organization, you may not be able to employ this full range. If you’re working for a luxury brand, disgust is probably not going to be a driver you’re going to speak to that often, but if the more you can connect with people in a real level, the more range you can bring, and the more you can get your organization to have the courage to look at the shadows as well as the light, the better you’re going to be able to connect with the people who value what you do.

If you want to do that, joy has to take a backseat, at least sometimes.

That’s my thought about emotions in content. I would love to know your thoughts on it.

If you are picking this up on iTunes, of course it is always wonderful to get a star rating or a review. That just makes me so happy, and it really is beneficial to me. If you would like to drop a comment or ask a question I might answer in a future podcast or give me some thoughts on topics you would like to cover, you can head on over to PinkHairedMarketer.FM, and you’ll get the whole list there, all the shows, the complete archive. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this show or any other show.

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Thank you so much for your time and attention, and I’ll see you soon. Take care.