One of the great horror scenes of all time is the famed shower scene in the Hitchcock classic Psycho. If you haven’t seen the film, I suggest you stop reading right now and see it. Then come back and read the rest of this as it will make more sense.
Go ahead. We'll wait.
What makes the shower scene so compelling is a technique that can also make your content writing skills more compelling as well. The use of the implied.
In Psycho, we never see a knife penetrate the skin of Marli Renfro. For those playing along at home, you may cry foul and say, Janet Leigh was the actress in Psycho. Yes, she was, however, Marli Renfro was her body double in the shower scene.
We see the movement of the knife, we see the blood running down the drain, we hear the horrific screams, provided my Ms. Leigh, but we never see an actual murder. The scene is so masterfully shot that it forces our minds to put the pieces together and create a murder.
We Are Participants
What makes Hitchcock's scene so compelling is the fact that we, the audience, are forced to participate in the murder. We have to conjure it in our minds. We have to add the knife cutting through flesh, we have to supply the wounds that would cause that much blood to flow down the drain. We have to create most of the act and so, we are in it, we are participating.
And further, because we are part of it, it stays with us longer. I mean, people still freak out when they watch that shower scene. People who have seen the film still hesitate to take a shower in motels. If you look at the scene compared side by side with most modern horror films, it's nowhere near as gory or detailed.
Modern audiences have grown immune to that kind of nightmarish killing because modern filmmakers feel the need to present, to spoon-feed, all the details which, when you examine it, gets the audience off the hook. The audience is no longer called on to participate and so, they witness it from a distance and as soon as the images are done on screen, the images are done in our minds.
Don't Let the Reader Off the Hook
In Psycho, Hitchcock puts us in it, to be part of it, so it stays with us. The same can be done for stronger, more impactful, longer-lasting copywriting.
There is a tendency in copywriting to spoon-feed all details and emotions to the reader so that they can move quickly over the copy and just focus on the pretty pictures. However, if you imply in your copy, it engages the reader and puts them into the story deeper.
For example: Which one engages the reader more:
"Our team of chefs has tried all 247 brands of corn chips that you can find on your grocer's shelf. With taste tests and comparisons, we believe we make the freshest, tastiest corn chip out there."
"There are 247 brands of corn chips...we've tried them all."
What is Forced is Implied
In the first example, we get ample details and we have a sense of "experts" but the copy is overly long and all the work is done for the reader. They can sit back passively and allow the copy to go by.
In the second example, we imply quite a bit. There are a lot of corn chips out there, we tried them all and...we're still here. We're still going strong.
What we’ve done in the second example is to allow the reader to put two and two together. We allow them to participate in the completion of the idea and so, like the shower scene in Psycho, they are part of it. They are now responsible for connecting the dots.
Why is it Better?
There are times when the big bold headline is what you want. There are times when the lengthy, emotionally gripping copy is the way to go and then, there are times when you're looking for quick, concise, and compelling.
There are few things more compelling than making the audience a part of the story. Making them participate in the creation of the idea in their own heads. Because they are being asked to fill in the blanks, complete the thought, they cannot be passive and just sit back and let the work maybe land, maybe not.
All the time they are looking at that copy, piecing the idea together, they are thinking about your brand of corn chip. No matter how long they stay on the idea, they are staying on your brand.
And, the idea, because most of it comes from the reader, will get in deeper and stay with them longer.
It's So Quick
The shower scene in Psycho goes on and on. We witness and participate in Janet Leigh's killing for what feels like an eternity. We are freed only when the silence takes over and the blood flows down the drain. But, my goodness, that was a long journey, right? Wrong.
The shower scene runs exactly 45 seconds. However, Hitchcock uses 72 different camera setups and 52 cuts in the scene. That's a lot of work. But, the result is a sweet combination of fast pace and a lingering horror. If the scene went on any longer we wouldn't be drawn in, we'd turn away. Equally, if he skimped on one setup or one cut, we wouldn't have all the pieces we needed to put the killing together in our own minds.
This is why Hitch was a genius. He implied.
The first of the corn chip examples, we run too long and we have too many setups and cuts. It allows us distance from the story. In the second example, we run the right amount of time, we have the exact number of setups and cuts and we just imply a meaning so the reader is in the middle of the idea and the idea stays longer. The time frame, the copy, is shorter but the results are that sweet spot of speed and long lingering image.
A Tool For Your Kit
As I said earlier on, this isn't something you're going to use all the time. There are times when a straightforward, here's what you need to get from this copy right now, approach is going to be called for. And, sometimes you're going to want to use more words, weave a tapestry of emotional impact, that's another tool.
However, if you're in a bind and looking for a bit of copy that pulls the reader in, makes them part of the idea, leaving things implied is a great way to do that.
Drop the handkerchief, dangle the bait. It helps if you don't see the reader like an idiot who needs everything spoon-fed. Most people are actually pretty bright and they will enjoy a little challenge, having to do a little work to get to the idea.
The human mind has an incredible capacity to solve puzzles and connect dots and we, as copywriters, can take advantage of that with how we lay our messages out there.