Choosing the Right Narrative Perspective for Impactful Marketing Copy
As a copywriter with a degree in English, there are a lot of arcane grammatical rules I have buried away in my head. I’m the type of person who looked up the definition of “split infinitive,” just so I could use it in conversation the next time someone brought up Sandra Bullock (there’s a moment in the movie “Two Weeks Notice” where a split infinitive is absolutely critical to the lifelong happiness of the two characters. Yes, I know how stupid that sounds. No, I am not making it up).
A lot of my more niche knowledge has little to no impact on copywriting, besides just being personal affectations that contribute to my overall flair. However, one of my biggest sticking points is also one that can have a significant impact on your marketing copy: strategic use of the three narrative perspectives in storytelling.
Most people probably don’t think about it too much, but when deployed correctly, narrative perspective is a subtly powerful tool you can use to draw your audience in, keep them at a distance, or even place them in the shoes of someone who’s already bought what you’re selling.
Crash Course: First, Second and Third Person
I’ve already talked extensively about using the first person perspective to powerful effect, but here’s a quick refresher on it and the other two perspectives.
First person perspective uses pronouns like “I” and “my,” and their respective verb tenses to demonstrate an autobiographical tone.
Second person perspective uses pronouns like “you” and “your,” and their respective verb tenses to refer to someone directly.
Third person perspective uses pronouns like “she” and “his,” and their respective verb tenses to refer to a person that is neither the person speaking nor the person being spoken to. (In other words, the “third person.”)*
Practically Speaking: Using the Narrative Perspectives Effectively
Let’s read a sentence written three times, using the three perspectives:
I will love the car I purchased just for myself.
You will love the car you purchased just for yourself.
He will love the car he purchased just for himself.
Notice something? Even if you’re reading on a superficial level, my guess is that you subconsciously placed yourself behind the wheel of a new car when you read the second version of the sentence — the one written in second person. And if you didn’t — well, here’s some visual stimuli to get you in the mood.
Of course, you’re probably thinking that’s an obvious way to get your potential customers’ attention. And you’re right, dear reader. However, you’d be shocked at how often it is inconsistently used in copy I see across the Internet.
While people rarely make the mistake of disagreeing on which perspective to use within one piece, many do miss opportunities to use narrative perspectives to their best advantage.
So then, how should you be using these tools in your copy?
When, Where & How: Choosing a Narrative Perspective
Here are the baselines for effective use of the three narrative perspectives:
- First person narrative is best for a blog post or article that is presenting an opinion.
- Second person narrative is best for copy that is trying to get someone to take an action, like purchasing a product or subscribing to an email.
- Third person narrative is best for presenting information at a bit of a distance, like a press release or a customer testimonial.
*Please note: while I cannot say for certain that this is the source of the now-infamous “third wheel” descriptor, I cannot discount it either.