There are two magic lands. One is the land of friendly grain-grower tribes, while the other is a motherland of mean-spirited hunters warring and betraying for profit.
Can you guess which land is called Grataka and which one is called Lamoniana?
Okay, hold that thought because we’ll get to it in just a sec.
In today’s post, we’re going to talk about a copywriting strategy that you probably have never heard of and how to use it to write copy that sells.
It’s got a complicated name, but it’s actually an easy and effective strategy. Let’s dive in.
What is phonosemantics?
Phonosemantics (aka phonoaesthesia, aka sound symbolism) is a portmanteau word defining the theory that meanings come from sounds. Each sound, or phoneme, carries a specific psychological impression. Whereas onomatopoeias are a category of words that define themselves in the way they are pronounced, phonosemantics says that any word can make an impression based on the way it’s pronounced.
Which explains why you guessed Grataka as the land of mean-spirited hunters:
Hard /g/ and /k/, together with abrupt rhythm and short vowels, make this word sound rude. And the citizens of Lamoniana seem good fellows because of soft /l/, /m/, /n/, long vowels, and polysyllabic rhythm in their land’s name.
To illustrate phonosemantics, here are some phonemes and the associations they trigger:
- /r/ – movement and activity
- /p/ – precision and patience
- /mp/, /str/ – force, efforts
- /o/, /u/, /e/ – powerful, strong, authoritative
- /b/ – round, big, and loud
- /i/, /ee/ – small size, tenderness
- /gl/ – shining, smooth, brightness
- /l/, /n/ – soft, gentle
Phonosemantics is not new.
- Sacred texts of Hindu philosophy (The Upanishads) describe mute consonants (b, c, d, f, g, p, t) as those representing the earth, fire, and eyes; sibilants (/s/) as representing the sky, air, and ear; and vowels representing heaven, the sun, and the mind.
- Plato believed people could choose names for things depending on their features and the features of the sounds. In his book Cratylus, he suggested the letter and sound /r/ for the expression of motion and activity.
- Russian scientist and poet Lomonosov suggested writers use the repetition of /i/, /e/, and /yu/ for creating the effect of something tender, pleasant, and soft, while repeated /o/, /u/, and /y/ would work to depict something terrifying, dark and cold.
Sound symbolism & the bouba-kiki effect
The mechanism of sound symbolism is yet unknown, but one suggestion is that it lies in verbal gesture—the way we use lips and tongue to pronounce the word. This concept, the bouba-kiki effect, was first introduced with an experiment in 1929 and has been confirmed by more recent studies.
In the experiment, participants were shown the below two shapes and asked which one is bouba and which one is kiki.
Ninety-five percent of people call the spiky one kiki and the rounded one bouba because those visual shapes align with what our lips do to say these words.
One of the most prominent researchers in sound symbolism, Margaret Magnus, nails it in her book Gods in the Word. She explains that:
- Many words beginning with /b/ relate to so-called “barriers, bulges, and bursting” headings because our lips come together and form a barrier to the airflow when creating the /b/ sound. It results in a bulge and a burst of sound.
- When pronouncing “kiki,” on the other hand, our lips narrow and our tongue makes a kind of sharp movement, therefore increasing Kiki’s chances to appear spiky.
Another idea around why this happens involves the connections between sensory and motor areas of the human brain. When hearing a sound, the brain doesn’t leap to a concept but associates it with a shape, a color, or an emotion—and responds accordingly.
Phonosemantics is an argument of little substance for most linguists denying such a relationship between sounds and meanings. And yet, conventional linguistic theories don’t have any alternative explanations for the bouba-kiki effect.
6 phonosemantic copywriting techniques to influence your readers
When it comes to copywriting (impressive copywriting examples here), it may seem super challenging to choose particular phonemes and combine them accordingly to influence readers’ perceptions and emotions.
But that’s not so.
Sound symbolism is not as hard as it sounds and may come in handy when coming up with business names, advertising slogans, or headlines for your content assets. Here are six ways to use them in your content to hook readers and generate sticky messages.
1. Use repetition & alliteration
Repetition and alliteration are two great techniques to practice here and make your written words memorable and more powerful.
It stands to reason that you won’t focus on just these sounds when crafting your ad copy, emails, or other marketing assets. Consider it an alternative copywriting technique to try in headings, intros, or conclusions whenever applicable.
Here’s how Aaron Orendorff applies it to his blog posts at iconiContent:
- /b/ is everywhere—big, round, and loud
- Repetition is used to pinpoint attention
- Alliteration encourages readers to speed up
2. Insert sensory words
Phonosemantics refers also to choosing sensory words for your content.
These are words, mainly verbs and adjectives, that help readers see, hear, taste, and feel your content. Best described by Henneke Duistermaat, they are more potent than ordinary words thanks to their more descriptive phonic nature. (Emotional words and phrases are super-potent too!)
She highlights five types of sensory words, according to different senses they evoke from people reading them:
- Sight, indicating colors, shape, or appearance.
- Hearing, describing or mimicking sounds.
- Taste/smell, relating to tastes or odors, respectively.
- Tactile, expressing concepts, feelings, and textures.
- Motion, aka active words describing movements.
While sensory words can make your copywriting more compelling and memorable, it doesn’t mean you should stuff your business or marketing content with them. One to two sensory words in a headline or an email subject line are already enough to hook the audience and add personality to your writing.
3. Bust out the bucket brigades
According to research, bucket brigades (aka transition words and phrases) affect reader comprehension. These words improve coherence by conveying the structure and providing logical connections between arguments. Bucket brigades influence a text’s readability, which is especially critical for introducing new content topics. They show information flow, serving as hooks to encourage us to keep reading.
Here goes the example from your humble narrator’s oldy-moldy guest post for SEMrush. In it you’ll see the following bucket brigades:
- It is true; but it is also true
- More than that
- To cut a long story short
- Not very inspiring, huh?
- Keep reading to find out
Bucket brigades also make for great SEO copywriting because they get and keep readers hooked—which can increase CTR and dwell time.
4. Converse with your readers
Notice also that I used conversational language in the above example. A writer can evoke particular emotions from readers with different types of bucket brigades. They engage a reader’s brain and create an impression of dialogue (rather than a lecture), making texts sound more “alive.”
Here are some additional words and phrases to use for conversational bucket brigades:
- Let me explain why
- Here’s the deal
- More than that
- On top of that
- In other words
- Put another way
- What does this mean?
- So what
- How so?
- My point is
Plus, conversational writing is also in our list of landing page trends for this year.
5. Drop soundbites
These are short yet powerful and poetic phrases that can better communicate the essence of a writer’s idea and make readers remember the core message.
Journalists and essayists know it as a thesis statement, screenwriters call it a logline, and speechwriters refer to it as a slogan (unforgettable advertising slogans here). The trick here is to choose lexical items and stylistic devices that would express your core message best, so the audience can’t help but remember it.
A classic example is John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Writing techniques like repetition and contrast make this soundbite so attractive. Playing metaphors, rhythm, and phonemes are also great to practice for soundbite creation.
Let’s take Henneke Duistermaat’s blog post at Copyblogger as an example:
Write less. Read more.
Talk listen more.
What do we have here?
- The alliteration of /r/ expresses activity and motivates readers to act.
- The repetition of less/more gives the soundbite rhythm.
- The contrast of less – more / talk – listen / write – read) hooks attention and makes the conclusion memorable.
Here are some ways to use soundbites:
- Put them in the last sentence of a paragraph or post for the audience to remember.
- Include them at the top of a section as the “tl;dr”
- Write them as one-sentence paragraphs (bolded or using the callout quote feature in your CMS if you have one)
- Share tweetable quotes through a click-to-tweet tool
Visually appealing, they hook and share core messages of blog posts for readers to remember.
6. Use paragraph rhythm to make your content sing
For better engagement and desired perception, your content needs to sound smooth, with each line flowing. Besides the above-mentioned bucket brigades, paragraph length/rhythm is your instrument to use for that.
Consider the classic example from Gary Provost, the author of Make Every Word Count:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.
And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
It’s all about the rhythm of your writings. So:
- Use short paragraphs with spaces between them, like in the article you’re reading right now. A mere look at your content piece should create an impression that it’s easy to read. (The human brain is super lazy, remember?)
- Switch between short and long sentences (like Provost’s example shows) to make your content sound smooth.
- Blend your content with one-sentence paragraphs now and then to highlight ideas (soundbites, remember?), provide a smooth reader experience, and create a dramatic effect when needed.
Phonosemantics: complex word, simple and effective copywriting technique
Copywriting may have formulas, but it is very much an art and there are no limits to the creativity you can apply to your marketing assets. It stands to reason that phonosemantics isn’t the silver bullet for content creators to drive engagement, win over readers’ love, or improve sales. And yet, it can become a powerful weapon in the arms of a writer who knows how (and when) to use it.
The basics of sound symbolism will help you analyze short- and long-form content, generate brand names and slogans, and influence the buyer decision process with psychology.
Just rememeber, while phonemes can trigger feelings and help you create emotionally rich content, it’s context and content value that matters most. So, treat phonosemantics as a faithful assistant, not a devil helping you manipulate a reader’s mind. Here is a quick recap of the copywriting techniques we covered in this post
- Alliteration and repetition
- Sensory words
- Bucket brigades
- Conversational language
- Paragraph rhythm
About the author
Lesley Vos is a text author and ghostwriter specializing in content creation and self-criticism. She’s in love with words, coffee, and foxes and in the hope of mastering the art of proofreading before she hits “send.” Read more about Lesley’s dark side here.