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Here’s how sensory language can elevate your marketing

Sensory language makes ideas more memorable by enriching context


Do you mind if I totally screw with your head for a minute? Good — I was hoping that’s what you’d say! I want you to read the following phrases as unhurriedly as possible, preferably out loud:

  • The smell of chimney smoke on a cold day
  • Aspen trees whispering in the wind
  • The reflection of Christmas lights in a shop window
  • The abrupt blast of a car horn at an intersection

A whole lot of whacky stuff just went on inside your brain. Here’s why you should care:

Think customers are fickle? Every entrepreneur and professional service provider knows they need to sound credible. They understand what they do from a logical perspective. It’s so easy they can talk about product features, yields, quality, patents, and the dynamics of their industry — all while daydreaming about their last skiing trip.

All that crap is, at best, of secondary importance. It doesn’t matter how impressive you sound if people can’t recall what you’ve told them 24 seconds later (much less 24 hours later).

If there’s one thing that is fickler than voters, it’s the human memory. That’s just one reason credibility isn’t enough to succeed in business. You’ve got to cross the Cinnamon Gap — the bridge between a strong first impression and the listener’s long-term memory — in order to make a lasting impression.

The Cinnamon Gap

In 2006, neuroscientists using advanced brain imaging first showed that simply reading the word “cinnamon” activates the olfactory regions of the brain — specifically the primary olfactory cortex. Those same neurons that light up if took a whiff of cinnamon respond to speech. The same rule applies to perfume, coffee and other words that evoke distinct smells and images.

I first heard of this phenomenon in the indispensable book “The Storyteller’s Secret,” by Carmine Gallo. Gallo writes that the above study, published in the scientific journal NeuroImage, was “the first to reveal that simply reading metaphorical language activates areas of the brain associated with sights and smells.”

Education consultant Conn McQuinn, writing for School Library Journal, explains that “An amazing thing happens in the brain when we hear a story. As the sights, smells, actions, emotions, or other sensations are described, the corresponding motor, sensory, and emotional areas in our brains light up as if we were experiencing them ourselves.”

Sensory language enriches context, making ideas more memorable.

Take it a step further: Analogy

Another tool from storytelling that complements and often incorporates sensory language is analogy.

“Today there’s a new body of research looking at the power of analogy in product marketing, but for great storytellers, analogy has always been an essential part of their toolkit. . . . Analogy facilitates understanding because it makes abstract ideas more relatable. If a listener cannot relate to an idea, that person will find it difficult to remember the concept and unlikely to act on the information,” says Gallo in “The Storyteller’s Secret.”  

Far too many good ideas fail to blossom because they’re planted in the rocky, brittle soil of logic. Sure, you need to understand the logical case for why people should buy from you. Just don’t expect them to think of it when they’re deliberating about making a financial commitment.

Think your industry is an exception? Try answering these questions off the top of your head:

  • How many square feet is your home?
  • What’s the current price of a barrel of oil?
  • What’s your credit score?
  • How much did you pay for your last major household appliance?

If you can’t answer questions like these that relate to your day-to-day quality of life, how do you expect people to remember or care that your company has 13 patents? People might be impressed by awards and recognitions you’ve received — for 30 seconds. After that, you’re just another smart businessperson in an undifferentiated sea of smart people floating products and ideas.

Make it tasty

Using storytelling tools like analogy and sensory language, you can help people understand and remember unfamiliar concepts by tying them together with familiar ones. So, make it tasty.

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John Garvey

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