Indirect Hints in Copy: Your Secret Weapon for Fostering Engagement, Invoking Alignment and Making Your Prospects Feel Damn Good About Themselves - The Copywriter Club

Indirect Hints in Copy: Your Secret Weapon for Fostering Engagement, Invoking Alignment and Making Your Prospects Feel Damn Good About Themselves

Well that is a long title. Tolkien himself would be impressed (and he’d be over the MOON if he saw the amount of hair attached to my big toes).


I don’t usually start posts by referencing my hideous man-feet, but I’m laying a trail of breadcrumbs to come back to later, so YOU can walk away from this page with a brand-spankin’-new, ready-to-use tool in your copy kit.

Yep, by the end of this post, you’ll know…

+     precisely what indirect hints are

+     why they’re so powerful

+     what they look like

+     and how to use ‘em


Let’s kick this journey off with a step inside the world of neurochemistry.



You’ve heard of dopamine, right?

That little neurotransmitter pop culture got a hold of and labelled ‘the pleasure chemical’?

Well, while dopamine is linked to pleasure, it’s more closely related to desire, motivation, and accomplishment.

Let me explain…

Imagine dopamine as a bunch of microscopic messengers who are hyper-sensitive to potential rewards. When they get a whiff that something rewarding is available to you (be it a deliciously cheesey slice of pizza or sexy time with a sexy human) they make their way down a well-worn path and end up in your nucleus accumbens, a spongy little region located towards the centre of your brain.

Now, these little critters aren’t the kind to arrive quietly to a party. When they reach their destination, they legit *ANNOUNCE* themselves,  grabbing your attention and prompting you to do everything you can to maximise your chances of reaping the available reward (by sweet-talking the pizza man or *not* mentioning your rampant toe hair, for example).

If you’re successful in obtaining the reward, They. Go. Nuts. Along with the natural opioids in your brain, giving you a big ol’ whoosh of pleasure.

Why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:

  1. We’re motivated to seek out rewards on a biochemical level… it’s quite literally programmed into our cells (*OMG WE’RE COMPUTERS*)
  2. Our little dopamine critters don’t just go crazy for cheese and naughty bits… they have a legit NYE 1999 PARTAY (sans questionable midnight smooch and high-level anxiety about Y2K) when we’re presented with an opportunity for internal or—in proper psyc speak—intrinsic rewards, like new knowledge, emotional connection, or a nice head-swelling sense of accomplishment

And this, my friend, is an as-good-as-it’s-going-to-get segue into indirect hints.


So what ARE indirect hints?

Welp, in simple terms, they’re the schneaky-schneak cousins of standard hints: less explicit and slightly trickier to solve.

While direct hints give you all the information you need to reach a set conclusion, indirect hints leave an element out, forcing you—the hintee—to engage a little deeper with the challenge at hand.

One recent study (conducted in the field of neuroeducation, where indirect hints are currently making a name for themselves) put them to the test across a series of mathematical equations. While it may not appeal to your word-loving brain and design sensibilities, this diagram of the hints provided during the experiment is helpful in differentiating indirect hints from standard, direct hints.

See how the indirect hint leaves that extra gap for people to close? As we’re about to learn, this kind of guided discovery creates near-perfect reward conditions, causing that dopamine party we just spoke about to kick right off.

Alright, back to the research…

Studies (like the one above) show—quite clearly—that tasks with an intermediate level of difficulty induce the largest sense of accomplishment for us humans.

And you know what handy little tools can render a task intermediately difficult, dangling the prize of accomplishment in front of those reward-seeking neurotransmitters poised at the ready inside our brains?

You guessed it! Indirect hints.


Fact is, when a task is too easy, not a lot goes on in our brains. There’s no anticipated reward so our dopamine lays low, keeping us unexcited and relatively disengaged.

On the other end of the spectrum, when a task is too difficult, we tend to give up. And our brains? Welp, they’re certainly not celebrating our failures.

This is where indirect hints shine brightest.

Thanks to their perfectly balanced level of difficulty and subsequent reward potential, they have an uncanny ability to keep people *highly* motivated and engaged: two things we should always be aiming for in the world of copy.

While motivation and engagement are some pretty sweet powers for small strings of words to possess, they’re only part of the picture. To fully understand the influence of indirect hints, we need to take a quick trip into one more world…

Social psychology.

We already know indirect hints get part of their power from the fact we’re motivated—on a biological level—to seek reward. The second part of their secret recipe (don’t tell the Colonel!) is this key fact of human existence:

We love to feel special, like we’re part of a team.

We instinctively seek out similarities and common ground with others in order to find a connection and a point of reference we can evaluate them from. This, by the way, is why all that voice of customer research you should be doing as a copywriter is so important—if we write the things our customers say, we’re paving that common ground right from the get-go.

Indirect hints can accelerate this process, providing opportunities for your audience to firm up connections through a process of guided discovery. As well as lighting up their reward pathways and invoking all the good stuff mentioned above, this process also acts as a ‘VIP-only’ invitation into your (or your client’s) world…

Because when someone gets the joke, shares the knowledge, or understands the reference, you automatically become more accessible and relatable.

To sweeten the deal even further, if your prospect has a high opinion of you, being able to align themselves with you on this level does great things for their self-esteem.

Confused? This is where my trail of breadcrumbs comes in…

+     Did you know I was talking about hobbits way back in my opener?

+     Did you have a little chuckle at my quip about toe hair being a romantic deal breaker?

+     Did you understand the relevance of my Goldilocks gif, before you read the following paragraph?

+     And, finally, did you clock my reference to KFC’s 11 ‘Secret’ Herbs and Spices?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these…

Did you feel yourself leaning in?  

Liking me more?

Or even aligning with me, this relative stranger on the other side of your screen?

Indirect hints are a way of social synching; a way of inviting readers into your (or your client’s) circle. And this is important because…

  1. Likeability is one of the key factors in conversion
  2. If a prospect feels like part of your ‘group’, they’re more likely to share your attitudes and beliefs

This latter phenomenon is referred to as social influence and is incredibly valuable in marketing. It makes people more likely to invest in a product you say is valuable and more likely to be satisfied with that purchase, which in turn makes them more likely to sing your praises.


Now we’re clear on why indirect hints should have a place in your copy toolkit, let’s take a deeper look at how to use ‘em.


One of the best ways to get a handle on how to use any new tool is to study existing examples. With this in mind, let’s look at the indirect hints in this post in a little more detail, before we move on to explicit how-to’s.  

Indirect hint #1: My opening crack about Tolkien and hairy feet

‘Well that was a long title. Tolkien himself would be impressed (and he’d be over the MOON if he saw the amount of hair attached to my big toes).’

What makes it indirect: I didn’t explicitly mention hobbits, or Tolkien’s fondness for page-long sentences, but gave you enough information to make the connections yourself, banking on the likelihood you’ve read his books or watched the movies.

Why I used it: To start the post on a memorable note and hook you in.

Indirect hint #2: My crack about toe hair’s pick-up potential

‘Prompting you to do everything you can to maximise your chances of reaping the available reward (by sweet-talking the pizza man or *not* mentioning your rampant toe hair, for example).’

What makes it indirect: While I mentioned ‘sexy time with a sexy human’ as a potential reward in an earlier paragraph, there’s a good few sentences in between, requiring you to go back and join the dots between this method of maximising your chances of reward and the reward itself. The success of this one also depends on you *not* finding toe hair attractive, but that’s a risk I was prepared to take.

Why I used it: To add some colour to my chat about neurochemistry and make the subject accessible.

Indirect hint #3: The Lisa Simpson Goldilocks gif

What makes it indirect: I inserted this little gif during a discussion of task difficulty, banking on the fact you’d be familiar with the character’s fondness for things that were ‘just right’, prompting you to transfer this quality to indirect hints.   

Why I used it: To give you the opportunity to reach the conclusion before I spelled it out and—in doing so—meet me there as an equal.

Indirect hint #4: My oblique reference to The Colonel

‘The second part of their secret recipe (don’t tell the Colonel!)’

What makes it indirect: There’s a pretty decent gap between the two key concepts here, but hopefully just the right amount of pointers (secret recipe and Colonel) to help you get the reference.

Why I used it: To let you know I was about to give away some juicy intel and, in doing so, invite you further into the fold.


Before you get too excited and start injecting indirect hints into your copy willy-nilly, take a gander at my five steps for implementation success; designed to help YOU wield your shiny new tool like a seasoned expert.  

Step 1: Know your goal

Indirect hints can be tricky little things to craft, especially if you’re not crystal-clear on the message you’re trying to convey and what you’re hoping to achieve. Because of this, I sometimes find they’re easier to inject after you’ve written your first draft, approaching them like you’d rewrite a sentence to add personality or drive home a point.

Step 2: Know your audience

You could drop the best indirect hint about Kanye West the world has ever seen, but if it’s landing in the laps of 90 year-old nannas who think that’s a little-known town somewhere in California, it won’t be helping your cause.

Step 3: Pick your form

As you might’ve guessed from this here post, my favourite ways to slip ‘em in are as metaphors, gifs, or punchy one liners. In my view, this keeps them natural, engaging, and personality-forward, which is exactly how I like my copy. You can use them without relying on humour of course: simply pick the method that matches your project and TOV the best.

Step 4: Show restraint

Repeat after me: “I will not use indirect hints as an excuse to populate my copy with riddles.” As powerful as indirect hints are, clarity reigns supreme.

Step 5: Close the gap… eventually

The implicit nature of indirect hints, coupled with the inevitable variations in knowledge and interests between your individual prospects leaves room for error; for even your best indirect hints not to land. Which can be a problem, because the thing with accomplishment is you need to know to know you’ve nailed the task at hand before you start the celebrations. Giving your prospects confirmation of that fact (in the next sentence, next section, or next email) will—in most cases—help your case, giving their brains permission to go forth and start the party.


My work here is done! You’re now fully qualified to use indirect hints to their full effect in all your future copy. I’m off to fix myself a plate of elevensies and search for that tall, bearded bloke so he can work some magic on my hairy hobbit feet…



Kirsty Fanton is a Sydney-based email copywriter with a background in psychology. You should follow her on Instagram and subscribe to her email list for regular tips on crafting emails that entertain, engage, and convert.

  • This article gave me an all-night dopamine party! It’s nice to find another copywriter with a background in psychology :-)

  • What a fun read. As a voiceover, most of the radio copywriting i come across is of the very very direct hint variety… out of the necessity of fitting into 30 seconds. But I do enjoy when a read manages to incorporate indirect hint-age it certainly lifts the end product.

    • Copywriters who can squeeze indirect hints into short form copy are my heroes! Have you seen the Hyundai Santa Fe ad on TV, with the little kid who farts in the back? It does a pretty good job XD

  • I’ve always appreciated pop culture references and one-liners in online content as a reader. I had no idea there was an actual term or use for these! Will definitely be taking notes on this one…

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