Language is symbolic. Words can’t possibly capture the essence of the person, place or thing they represent. That’s why people abuse adjectives and adverbs, to try and convey a noun or verb more precisely. But the word “cat,” for example, is not the same as looking into a cat’s eyes and seeing a sentient being staring back. “Fur” doesn’t begin to capture the feel, texture (and varieties thereof). We use words, and the reader fills in the gaps with their own associations and memories. By shifting from giving readers a description to inviting them into an experience, we can bring them along with us (and maybe even lose a few adjectives along the way).
The core of resonating with readers is writing in a way that evokes a response, either sensory or emotional. This kind of writing triggers readers’ mirror neurons—and mirror neurons are part of what neuropsychologists call the “resonance circuit.” It’s a bit like when we look at a photo of a busker and our brain fills in the sounds of his violin, or how photos of nature can make us feel relaxed. In both cases, your brain is offering up its associations with these two things: music and nature, evoking the response we’d be likely to have if we were witnessing those things in person.
Imagine you’re watching a scary movie, and the lead character is alone in a house on a dark, stormy night. The phone rings, and the voice on the other end creaks, “You think you’re alone, but I’m watching.” Eeeeek! You put your hands over your eyes (if you’re me). You have just identified with the character, and you’re now as scared as you assume she is. That’s because your mirror neurons have fired in response to what you’re seeing.
The same thing happens with writing. When we read fiction, our mirror neurons fire in tandem with the characters we care about. Their fear becomes our fear. Their swoons render us weak-kneed, and their walks through a garden seem as fragrant as if we were holding a rose.
There’s a way to do that in nonfiction, and even in business writing.
Experiential vs. Evocative Writing
When it comes to writing, people often use the words “evocative” and “experiential” interchangeably. All good creative writing is evocative, meaning it evokes something (a feeling or sensation) in the reader. Experiential writing places the reader directly inside an experience.
Experiential writing is always evocative; evocative writing isn’t necessarily experiential.
To clarify: Experiential writing is second-person (“you”), either directly or implied. It guides the reader inside an experience, as I did in the section above. It evokes emotion as well as memories; it engages the heart, the mind and the imagination. Experiential writing is pretty powerful stuff.
This is useful when writing marketing materials for vacation destinations (“Swim with dolphins through sparkling turquoise water”), or for guided meditations (“Feel your breath as it travels down to your abdomen”) or self-hypnosis (“You are walking through an old stone doorway, into a hidden garden”), but unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club and other novels) or Paul McKenna (UK hypnotist), I recommend using it sparingly. A little bit goes a long way.
Evocative writing, on the other hand, can work in all kinds of formats. It elicits emotion and sensory experiences in the mind of the reader by suggesting certain elements—the fragrance of a pine forest in spring, after the rain, for example—and the reader’s brain responds by firing up the pleasure centers associated with the sweet, damp aroma. (Unless she’s never been in a pine forest).
Evocative writing is more effective than straight “who-what-when-where-why,” because it engages the reader’s heart as well as her mind. You aren’t just presenting facts; you’re inviting a reader into a shared experience.
How to Write Evocatively
Instead of telling us about a park you visited, bring us along for the stroll. Share with us the fragrance of the trees, the sounds of the birds, or children playing. Did you stop for a soft pretzel? Let us taste its salty, chewy texture. Was there a warm spring breeze on your skin, or was the sun beating down in a scorching heat? Or maybe snowflakes landed on your arms and then dissolved?
Whereas experiential writing is second-person, evocative writing can be used in any POV (first, second, and all the varieties of third). If you’re writing memoir, create scenes that include sensory elements the reader can experience. If you’re writing for business, engage the reader deeply by suggesting (authentic) experiences facilitated by your product or service.
In general, you probably aren’t going to simply list all the sensory experiences you had. Instead, sprinkle them throughout. Are you writing about a conversation you had with someone? Bring us into the experience by including details of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch (as well as emotion).
Writing a sales page for a retreat? Include some sensory descriptions of the location (this is actually another situation where you could also include some experiential writing—instead of saying, “There’s a stable nearby with horses you can ride,” try “Spend an afternoon exploring the cliffs on horseback.”)
If you’re in business, either as a solopreneur or a larger company, you’re probably not going to be talking about the fragrance of woodsmoke in your communications, but you can still use evocative writing. First, identify what emotional benefits your service or product provides clients/customers. “Features vs. benefits” is a whole other post, but in short: A car that can go 0-60 in 30 seconds is a feature; getting home to your kids faster is the benefit. The emotional benefit is “more quality time with your kids.”
Then take that a step further: What is the experience of that emotional benefit? Help the reader hear the peals of laughter as she pushes her daughter on the swing set, or teaches her son how to plant flowers in the garden. Help her feel the damp earth on her hands and under her fingernails.
Evocative writing takes considerable time. Even if you’re an experienced creative writer (fiction or nonfiction), it generally requires writing a straightforward draft (“just the facts”), then considering all the different sensory and emotional experiences associated with those facts, writing out dozens of different ideas (should I focus on the sounds of waves crashing against the shore, or the smell of the salt air?), testing different ones, often in combination, until you hit on a blend that feels just right—no so much that the reader feels like you’re dictating her experience, but enough so the experience arises organically in her heart and mind. It’s a fine balance.
I’ll leave you with this final reason for using evocative writing: If you tell a reader a fact, they may or may not remember it. But readers will never forget how you made them feel.
Photo Credit: © Allef Venicus / Unsplash