Harvard Lesson: Verbs Beat Adjectives
The debate among copywriters about verbs vs. adjectives rages on. While the general consensus is that verbs make better sales copy and adjectives serve mainly to slow down the reader, there’s also research that shows properly used adjectives can increase product appeal.
Lessons from Harvard B-School
If you think your sales challenge is daunting, try selling yourself to Harvard Business School. Even though most applicants are amazingly well qualified in terms of academic, career, and personal accomplishments, almost 9 out of 10 are rejected. When the Wall Street Journal interviewed Dee Leopold, managing director of MBA admissions at Harvard, she weighed in on the adjective vs. verb debate and came down on the side of verbs.
When asked about letters of recommendation, Leopold commented,
The best recommendations have a lot of verbs. They say, “She did this,” versus adjectives that simply describe you.
When you think about it, a letter of recommendation is really sales copywriting. Normally, it is written for someone whom the recommender likes and wants to assist in the next stage of their education or career. While such a letter should not be overtly a work of persuasion, the intent is usually to paint a favorable (even if reasonably accurate) picture of the candidate.
Why Verbs Persuade
There are multiple reasons to choose verbs over adjectives. First, adjectives on their own don’t say all that much and are easy to throw in without real justification. Describing a candidate as “dedicated, focused, and creative” is a quick way to satisfy the need for a favorable comment and get the recommendation on its way.
Similarly, a product could be, “economical, long-lasting, and easy to use.” In both cases, though, the reader has nothing to go on other than the word of the writer, who is almost certainly biased in favor of creating a good impression. Vague positive characteristics will get filtered out as puffery.
Action verbs force the writer to get specific – “created a series of ads,” “led a team of engineers,” “worked through a holiday,” and so on require actual examples of the behaviors or characteristics in question. A product might “outlast other brands by 10,000 hours,” or “cut maintenance costs by 25%.” These specifics will increase the credibility of the copy, in addition to providing more information that when the adjective-driven shortcut is taken.
Verbs Rule, Adjectives Serve
Even if verbs are the main driver of the sales copy, adjectives still have some use. In particular (as described in Adjective Power), adjectives that are vivid, sensory, specific, or emotion-inducing can be potent copy enhancers.
In short, verbs should be the “entree” of the copywriting meal. Adjectives should be used sparingly, to season and enhance the appeal of the main course.
I am always amazed how you “dig deep” into topics I would not even think about.
Your ability to “reveal” the importance of these topics is excellent!
You “provide” a feast of real and practical information!!
For all of the above I thank you!!!
(writing from your neurological roots – Cork -Ireland!!!
Adjectives are ‘picture words’. They can be used to create an image in the mind of the consumer. However, the visual aspect is only about attracting the attention of the audience, and not persuading them to take action.
When it comes to compel the user or the consumer to take a desired action, you need ‘action words’, otherwise known as verbs.
Thanks for this great insight, Roger.
Roger, Thanks for posting this result from Harvard. I suppose that if the purpose of persuasion is to move people, then it might make sense that verbs are more likely to create action. I think that the worst obstacle against persuasion is the use of nouns that were once verbs.
For example: communication, transportation, education, monetization…
I think this will be a new goal of mine for 2012. It will be interesting to write copy for my real estate business using more verbs and less adjectives. In some respect, this may play along well with describing the benefits as opposed to describing the features.
I agree with the feature/benefit comment, Geordie. Verbs are almost always more meaningful to the reader.
Not something I’ve thought about before, but it’s something I think I will give a try to. Or at the very least have in my mind as I’m writing.
I think whether you go after verbs or adjectives depends on the product or brand. Much as I hate to challenge the Harvard Business Review (!), I wouldn’t like to make a blanket assertion that one is definitely better than the other – its good to have flexibility by circumstance and context.
For instance, I do want my oven cleaner to cut through grease but I’m perfectly happy for my wine to be refined and floral with a long-finish. Some brands are more action-oriented (Nike “Just Do It”, Apple “Think Different”, YouTube ‘broadcast yourself”) but others are more descriptive (BA “The World’s Favourite Airline”, Mastercard “Priceless”, BMW “The Ultimate Driving Machine”). Both approaches can work right?
This is so simple, sort of like the picture books I write. The idea of adjectives vs. verbs is similar to what I was taught about writing for children, “Show, don’t tell.”
When you mentioned that an adjective can just be thrown in easily for no real reason, I thought of my writing picture books. Instead of my saying a character is happy, I should show it with action like, “Rose jumped up and down, threw her hat in the air and yelled with glee.” Not a stellar writing masterpiece, but better than “Rose was happy.”
After reading your post, I asked my son to give me a few examples of how verbs are better than adjectives. There’s always a teaching moment when I read your blog. Thanks
I found this to be the most useful in top headers on landing pages and homepages.
When you only have one line to communicate a message, fine tuning the word usage into actionable verbs vs subjective adjectives makes a big difference.
I totally agree. If you follow the Marketing Experiments blog, you know that one the biggest ways you can increase conversions is by using “meaningful verbs” in your calls to action. For example, on a insurance lead gen form, instead of a boring “Submit” button, use “Get Free Quotes Now!” or something similar leading with a verb.
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Great Advice. I have been wanting some people to show the way around the “verb usage” so great examples.