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Why the Word “Deadline” Is so Persuasive … and How To Use It

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 3.8.24

Power words are terms and phrases that move prospects to act. The word deadline – like the words now, instantly, and discover – is a power word that creates urgency and motivates the reader to take the next step. I like deadline because it’s so practical. 

When I don’t use the word deadline, I struggle to get responses to my emails, letters, and messages. There’s crickets in my inbox or my voice mail and I want to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of those I write to. Why don’t they answer me quickly?

But my reaction is not really fair. Should my message take precedence over the 43 others waiting for my reader to respond … if I haven’t indicated a timeline or at least a sense of urgency?

When I give a deadline, I’ve found, then I get higher priority. My message is moved up in my reader’s queue. 

Before we talk about why this word is so persuasive and how to use it, you want to know how the word deadline came about.

Power words: How to use "deadline" with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #PersuasiveWriting

Writing trivia: when a deadline could kill you

These days, a deadline is a date or time by which you need to complete a task, answer a question, submit a proposal, apply for a job – in other words, get something done.

But originally, the word was literal. During the American Civil War, prisoners were often confined inside stockades. Guards built rails along the stockade’s interior wall. Any prisoner who ventured across the rails was at risk for being shot. Step across the “dead-line,” and you could become a casualty. 

Why a deadline is so persuasive

Missing a deadline may not be as lethal today as it was during the American War Between the States, but nevertheless the word carries power because …

A deadline is concrete

Readers have dozens or even hundreds of actionable messages that scream for their attention each day. A deadline eliminates their option to wait.

But with no deadline, then your offer or your application or your note moves to a lower priority. Readers simply have too many other moving parts in their viewfinders. Give a clear cutoff time, and you move from the “that-can-wait” column to the “must-act-now” column. 

A deadline creates urgency

A deadline increases a reader’s FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out. By meeting the deadline, the reader will save money, get special access, have an opportunity that will otherwise go away. Miss the deadline and they miss out.

Tips for using the word “deadline”

Where to use a deadline

  • In an email subject line
  • In a reminder 
  • With a limited-time offer 
  • On an envelope carrier

What to include

Give your deadline a specific date and time. “Friday at 2 PM” is much clearer than “ASAP” or “at your convenience.”

Show the benefit

Demonstrate what the reader gets by meeting the deadline  and what she will miss out on by not responding in time. “This 50% offer ends on Tuesday at noon. After that, you’ll have to pay full price” is more powerful than “Please respond by Tuesday at noon to get this offer.” 

One caution with deadlines

One asterisk: when you create a deadline and use this power word in your content, stick to it. 

You may get away with an artificial deadline or an extended deadline a time or two. But if you repeatedly use the word “deadline” when one doesn’t exist or then don’t enforce it, you’re teaching your readers to disbelieve you. Your deadline becomes meaningless, similar to a parent’s unenforced threat to a toddler or the boy who cried wolf.

Instead, mimic the Civil War guards. Draw a line. and stick to it. Your deadline may not be fatal for your readers, but they will think twice about ignoring it. Your words will have more urgency, persuasiveness, and power. 

And so will your credibility.

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