Ever think you’ve got Alzheimer’s, or am I the only asshole running around forgetting the word “lollipop?”
Let me tell you, there’s nothing worse than forgetting the word “lollipop” in front of a stranger. It’s not like it’s some academic word one could be forgiven for forgetting, like idiosyncrasy—which I feel like is forgivable. I mean, nobody’s running around saying that word five times a day. But when you’re in the middle of a riveting conversation about the United States custom of handing out lollipops at the bank (or some other equally annoying conversation), you’ve got the attention of the entire room, and just as you’re going for the execution, you forget the most important word to convey what the hell you’re talking about, you should really reevaluate some things.
Like whether you’re you’re drinking enough water. (Gotta keep those neural connections hydrated.) Or whether this is simply what old age looks like. (And here I thought the creases on my neck were embarrassing.) Or, you know, whether you’re just one step away from the slippery slope that is SENILE DEMENTIA—which I had to look up the spelling on, by the way, which probably means it’s all downhill from here. I mean, if I can’t spell dementia I’m definitely not going to remember how to spell Ambirge. I’ll just be up in the old folks home muttering the words “The Middle Finger Project” over and over to the nurses. I’m sure that’ll go over well.
I shouldn’t really joke about this kind of stuff, karma and all.
And also because I recently saw the movie Still Alice, which is no laughing matter at all. Have you seen that movie? Read the book? Heard bigmouths like me talking about it?
First of all, I cried through the entire thing, and second of all, Julianne Moore is a god damn genius. The movie—which is based off the 2007 novel by the same name—is about a brilliant linguistics professor at Columbia who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. And it’s terrifying.
Terrifying because you see a very real depiction, from what I understand, of what this heartbreaking disease actually does to you. Terrifying because you realize that this actually happens to people. And terrifying because you realize this could happen to you. Let's be honest: Peeing your sweatpants because you can’t remember where the bathroom in your own home is located is the least of your problems—though one of the struggles we witness in the film.
Though while the topic of Alzheimer’s is certainly an important conversation, that’s not actually why I’m bringing it up.
I’m bringing it up because—surprise—the movie has a lot to teach us about writing, and in particular, about writing as business owners, as entrepreneurs, and as people who need to get themselves noticed in a dog eat dog world. (Which I definitely thought was “doggy dog world” throughout my entire adolescence.)
Now, I’ve never actually had early-onset Alzheimer’s. (So far.) I haven’t known anyone who's been diagnosed with any form of Alzheimer’s. So my only experience with the disease is limited to what I know about it from a general knowledge standpoint. So, how is it that I would be so affected by a movie that I can’t necessarily relate to? How is it that I would cry throughout the entire thing? How is it that this topic I have no particular emotional attachment to…made me emotionally attach?
Let's take everyone’s favorite tear-jerker as another example: Titanic. Raise your hand if you bawled during that bad boy. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never personally been freezing to death in the middle of the icy cold North Atlantic while floating on a piece of wood as my lover mumbles poetry right before he dies right in front of me. Knock on…some other piece of wood?
I’m guessing you haven’t, either—so why is it that, despite being unable to relate, Titanic is one of the most emotion-slaughtering films of all time? Why is it that both of these movies might have nothing to do with anything we’ve personally experienced, yet all the same, make it feel like we have? How is it that we can’t relate—but we do?
The answer lies in one simple fact: Because movies are expertly engineered to make us feel like we are the characters we’re rooting for. And studies show that that’s exactly what happens to your brain on movies—you psychologically suspend reality for a couple of hours as you step into a new one.
The way that filmmakers make you feel like you’re in the movie? Is by having an unprecedented understanding of how to make you feel, period. They’re master emotions engineers. And make no mistake—every single decision, from the angle of the camera to every word uttered—is a strategic one. Try on this fun fact for size:
“As Westerners, we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio made movies, there's a good chance that the “good guy” will enter screen left every time. When the “good guy” moves left-to-right, our eyes move comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences.”
—Skip Young, Psychology at the Movies
Naturally, this topic fascinates me. As a trained linguist who applies the psychology of language to sales environments for a living (in addition to all the prostitution, of course), one of the areas I regularly study is emotions and, in particular, how we can engineer emotion with words.
Given the age-old research that shows time and time again that humans buy on emotion and justify their purchases later with logic, this has certainly been fruitful. By the way, did you know that 67% of the people that were about to give you money, don't? That's a Freddy Krueger of a statistic, isn't it? But that's precisely where the importance of emotional connection comes in—because if you're losing $7,000 for every $3,000 you do make, we've got a tragedy on our hands. So that's what led me to expand my research on emotions & the written word into other disciplines, such as film, and look at how emotions are crafted by the people who have been doing it best for decades: Hollywood. Turns out, when you’re spending hundreds of millions to dollars to make a movie, you don’t half ass anything.
One of the things I found is that movie makers rely heavily on being able to predict certain mental schemata—or mental structure of preconceived ideas—that we, as a population, already have in our heads. Then, they'll give us cues in the movie to trigger those mental schemata, which prompts our brains to fill in the gaps with our own experiences, making the movie feel real for us. By juxtaposing those experiences with we’re currently viewing on the screen, Hollywood prompts us to project our own human experiences onto the movie, and when we do that, we can relate—because we’ve made it our own.
This reminded me of research I did as a graduate student on language acquisition and, in particular, second language acquisition, and how the brain accommodates and integrates separate language systems as adults. As you might expect, we rely a lot on our existing schema to navigate relationships between new words and find meaning.
And here’s why any of that matters to you:
Because when you write, readers, customers, and prospective clients are all relying on their existing mental schemata to make sense of what you’re saying.
In this regard, context really is everything. The very same sentence to one person, might mean something very different to another person, because they’re relying on their experiences as humans to help them fill in the gaps and apply meaning.
And what does that mean?
It means that in order to ever have a shot at evoking emotion with your writing—and therefore make anyone give a shit about you and your ideas and whatever it is that you’re selling—you must know not only which emotion you need to evoke, but furthermore, who you’re evoking it in, and what kinds of mental schemata they’re likely to be applying to what you’re writing. Only then will you be able to frame a written experience that’s designed to do what the movies make us do: Feel.
After all, you don’t watch a movie hoping not to give a shit, and your reader doesn’t go into your writing, your sales page, or your website hoping that either. They want you to make them feel something. But when you don’t deliver on your promise to the reader, and you don’t provide them with much-needed emotional satisfaction, then no sales argument in the world is going to change their mind.
Because it’s not about the mind. It’s about the gut.
And since emotions precede cognition by law?
The gut is what determines the sale.
And until you learn to speak that language?
You’re as good as the girl who forgets the word “lollipop”…and ruins everything.