Writing with impact: reframe facts to boost emotional intensity

The saying goes that people rarely remember what you say but never forget how you make them feel. The lesson for writers is that you can fuss all you like with words and messages, but unless they’re freighted with emotional intensity your audience is unlikely sit up and listen.

An old story about legendary ad man Rosser Reeves illustrates how facts become emotional steroids when they connect to a bigger idea.

Legend has it that Reeves was taking a stroll when he passed a man on the street begging for change. The man’s sign read: I am blind. His cup was a drought of coins.

Copywriter Reeves believed he could help, and with the blind man’s permission amended the sign, adding four words: It is springtime and I am blind. The drought broke almost immediately, and coins soon flooded his cup.

Both messages convey the same information – the man is blind. But Reeves’ edit connected the man’s blindness to the anguish of being unable to witness and share in the beauty of a spring day, moving people to act.

The idea is powerful because it alters the perception of the facts, and yet the facts have not changed. It reframes an offer (the opportunity to donate, in this case) to make it far more compelling than the simple statement of fact (I am blind).

Marketers use reframing to give their brands more emotional clout, and none better than Nike, whose shoes and sportswear just might help inspire their owners to get out there and, well, just do it.

Granted, marrying a product (sportswear) to a higher concept (unabashed expression) isn’t quite in the same league as Reeves’ more honest leverage of the plight of blindness. Nevertheless, Nike’s emotional mashup of sportswear and ‘doing it’ while wearing its sportswear isn’t an entirely unreasonable proposition.

More recently Nike hitched itself to a bigger idea that promotes the nobility of personal sacrifice to achieve dreams.

It’s award-winning “Dream Crazy” ad features the stony gaze of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick superimposed with the words: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt.”

The ad references Kaepernick’s powerful demonstration during the National Anthem, when he dropped to a knee to protest against police brutality and racial injustice in America. Soon thereafter he was released from his contract and hasn’t played since. Consequently, the most influential NFL player does not play in the NFL.

Say what you will about Nike commercialising antiracism, but standing with Kaepernick and attaching itself to the cause he represents is simply good business. Colin Kaepernick is chasing a dream, and selling dreams is Nike’s business. It’s emotional.