Rock music will never make you cry like country music does.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, he explores the differences between country music and rock music in an episode titled “The King of Tears.” In it, one of his questions is why rock music’s top 50 songs of all time largely feature songs about partying, but the country music top 50 features songs about divorce, the end of love, the loss of a parent, terminal illness, volatile relationships, and broken hopes.

But that question led to a far more important question: what makes us cry?

Singer Bobby Braddock
Songwriter Bobby Braddock (left) has made more people cry than your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.

He eventually theorizes about what makes us cry, and it’s not sad melodies or overwhelmingly sad lyrics. For example, the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” was allegedly written about Marianne Faithfull while she recovered from an overdose. The song is about the pain of helplessly watching a loved one suffer. It’s sad, but it doesn’t ring true like a country song does.

What makes us cry is specificity. It’s about using the details that tie the story to a specific place, time, and pain. Specificity rejects generic filler; it refuses to let itself accommodate multiple groups of people. Specificity is for someone specific, and that’s why it hits us so hard.

As marketers or as creatives, specificity needs to be at the heart of everything we do. With an unprecedented amount of data about different audiences at our fingertips, we should feel empowered to reach out to others, soul-to-soul, with everything we create.

But we don’t.

People Are Giving Us Fake Addresses

I don’t mean that they’re giving us bad data.

I think that fundamentally, the people we’re trying to reach are lying to themselves (and us) about why they chose our client, our website, our brand, or what have you. They’re telling us that they make decisions rationally. We regularly make the assumption that people are making their buying decisions based on the facts.

“I chose this plumber because they won X award.”

“This lawyer won the most money out of all the lawyers I researched.”

“This criminal defense lawyer used to be a prosecutor, so she seemed like the best choice.”

Does any of the above sound fake or contrived to you? It’s because you’re human, and you’re good at smelling fake sentimentality. But don’t we write/design/project manage as though this is how people make decisions? We pour lavish attention onto awards, we plaster “$400 million won in court” in every H2, we copy-paste a lawyer’s alma mater all over their site like someone who’s just been arrested cares that their lawyer attended the University of Colorado.

Don’t get me wrong — all of those selling points are important, but not for the reason we think it is.

Researchers believe that human beings are trained to make decisions with their gut and their emotions, and then justify that decision with rational reasoning after the fact. That means all those selling points are what people are saying convinced them to pick our clients, but the truth is they probably responded to the colors, to the imagery, to the way the messaging made them feel.


In the real world, the heart wins this fight every time.

We need selling points so people can point to them and say “this is why I picked them!” But we understand that it’s not the real reason. The real reason anyone chooses your client is that you managed to reach them emotionally, to connect with their pain.

In other words, hit them where they live — not the fake address where their rationality resides.

Charlotte's Web cover by Garth Williams.
I looked for an image from the movie, but hot dang that CGI spider looked creepy.

Aiming for Homer Zuckerman

Ann Handley, writer and marketing speaker, believes that Charlotte’s Web is the best marketing handbook ever written.

I had the pleasure of seeing her talk at Social Media Marketing World a few months ago, and what she said stuck with me. She touched on a number of ways that Charlotte’s Web informs the way she markets, but one thing she mentioned burned itself into my brain.

If you’re unfamiliar, Charlotte’s Web is about a pig named Wilbur who’s sold to a farmer named Homer Zuckerman for eventual slaughter. Charlotte, a spider who has befriended Wilbur, begins spinning webs that praise him — evidence of divine providence, according to the neighbors. Hooked on the publicity, Zuckerman eventually decides not to slaughter Wilbur.

Handley’s point is that Charlotte correctly understood exactly what Zuckerman wanted — he wanted praise from his neighbors. She didn’t appeal to his mercy or try to convince him that pork meat was unhealthy. She didn’t create a list of selling points explaining why Wilbur should live. Charlotte learned what Zuckerman wanted to feel, and then created a message that delivered.

Even while those messages she wrote were ostensibly for everyone,Charlotte never lost sight of her real audience: Zuckerman.

That was Ms. Handley’s point: as designers, as writers, as creators, we should never lose sight of our Zuckerman.

It’s Not About the Money (But It’s About the Money)

Most of my time is spent writing for personal injury lawyers. I write for clients in other verticals too, but it’s injury attorneys who get my attention most of the time. I’ll admit, my writing ends up becoming…repetitive.

I’ve probably written 10 million sentences beginning with “our lawyers have won/secured/obtained hundreds of thousands/millions/billions of dollars in…”

In the middle of writing that exact sentence one morning, I had a realization: would I really care if an attorney had won himself a boatload of money in a thousand cases across the nation? Or do I care that I’ll get what I need to survive?

I made a small adjustment to my sentence: “Our clients have won [X amount], helping them pay for groceries, get medical care, and provide for their families.”

It gets across the same information — “this lawyer knows what she’s doing” — but it frames it according to the needs of the reader, not the acclaim of the seller. Research affirms this sort of framing too; psychological profiles of injury plaintiffs revealed that most people file cases not because they’re looking for cash, but because they’re guilty about not making a living! Their self-image as a provider is broken, and it needs fixing. They just want to put food on the table for their kids.

Reaching out to the guilty and hurting, affirming that their pain is not their fault, assuring them that holding their wrongdoers accountable will make them a provider again — that’s what I mean when our messaging needs to be specific. It needs to be for the person we’re trying to reach.

Good marketers disabuse themselves of the myth that being “appealing” is enough to win others over. We need to be specific — who are we writing for? What do they want on a fundamental level? What would bring peace and balance back to their view of themselves?

Note: I originally published this article on Medium for my colleagues at Scorpion. I have edited it and republished it here.

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