Thinking Inside The Box

theboxWhat is creativity?

I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche that gets kicked around, about the value of thinking “outside the box.” But in my experience, that’s the opposite of true.

In fact, there was a time when I considered becoming a cartoonist. And I was a big fan (still am) of the cartoons that appear in the New Yorker. While reading a collection of essays by repeat cartoonists in those pages, I was struck by what one of them said.

The best way, he reported, to get an idea for the perfect funny moment… was to draw an empty box. Those were the bounds of the space you had to work with. And that reminder was enough to help you focus on what could — and couldn’t — go inside.

Maybe that’s why I was also struck by a quote I found years ago in BusinessWeek, courtesy of Marissa Ann Mayer, a VP at Google:

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, and religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.

“They’re beautiful because creativity triumphed over the rules. Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration. Creativity, in fact, thrives best when constrained.

“Yet constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or what we accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or simply unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible are fueled by passion and result in revolutionary change.”

Well said, Marissa. Well said.

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The Curse of the Modern Age

3DD92E8C-7CDE-4F5A-8C69-C3B6EA13D930.jpg “For a list of the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” says Alice Kahn, “please press three.”

I’m sure you know what she’s talking about.

And even if you don’t, let me ask you this: How often do you, you know, do “it?” Maybe once in the morning… and again in the afternoon?

I’ll bet. Or maybe you like to do “it” just before lunch… or just after lunch… or before and after and during? That wouldn’t surprise me either.

And then there’s your coffee break… what else are you going to do while waiting for a pot to brew? Not to mention just before meetings… or during meetings… and as soon as one ends.

Yep, you do “it” all the time. You just can’t stop yourself. Sadly, you’re not alone. Because the rest of us probably do “it” too often too.

Of course, I’m talking about checking your email… your tweets… your texts… and your Facebook alerts.

Not so long ago, it was a non-issue. Now every computer in the world seems to ding all day with new message alerts. And if not the computers, it’s the cell-phones. Or even iPods and iPads, since they connect too.

It’s everywhere.

You can even log in on your way to the bathroom… or IN the bathroom… (please tell me you’re not reading this in a stall).

And how about that quick download before dinner… or during dinner… or just before drifting off to sleep?

How about in the elevator… at a stop light… or in motion. Maybe even over the shoulder of your loved one, during a warm but, let’s be honest, not so time-efficient embrace.

If any six of the scenarios above sound familiar… or if you’ve wondered if a Ziploc bag could protect your iPad in the shower… you might have a problem. And you wouldn’t be alone again, you wouldn’t be alone. Or so says Matt Richtel, a tech-writer for the New York Times.

Maybe this comes to you as no surprise.

This is, after all, the age of high tech multi-tasking. Or is it? Not according to a handful of studies cited in one of Richtel’s recent articles.

And if you’re wondering why you feel busy all the time but you don’t get anything done — this might be the reason why.

In short, our brains just aren’t built for the perpetually “plugged in” lifestyle. It may, in fact, be costing you.

Now hang on there, cupcake.

Yes, I DO realize the irony.

After all, I’m a direct response copywriter. My bread and butter relies on people opening messages, including email. And yes, I also write an e-letter, which is delivered by email and in which this article originally appeared (sign up in the box to the right).

But between you and me, have you noticed your relationship changing at all with your inbox? Mine certainly has.

Case in point, in the beginning days of Compuserve, I could barely get enough. I too was a serial email reader. I must have hit the “get mail” button a dozen times a day, eager for contact.

Not so much anymore.

I now have, for example, 778 emails sitting waiting for an answer. Some are dated from last summer. I want to answer them. I feel compelled to answer them.

But I won’t. I’ve even actively decided not to.

Why?

Like anything, it’s complicated.

I recently heard a radio host sum up at least one part of the problemlike this: each email is a moment on someone else’s agenda. Tell me this, answer me that, find and send me this info.

How true.

And yet, she said, she can’t resist knowing if anything new has come in. So she checks — just for a second — and finds herself lost, an hour or more later.

Sound familiar?

I don’t want that. I can’t afford that. So I stay away. These days, much as I want to, I try not to start checking email until after 4 pm… 3 pm if I’m feeling weak. Because it’s the only way.

How about you?

I ask because I know what it is to be writing, like you’re aspiring to do. And whether it’s novels or sales copy, it’s the same.

You’re either in the zone… or you’re not.

When you’re in it, you know. Because that’s when even a five alarm fire would have a tough time getting you to move from your chair or stop what you’re doing.

I’m sure you “get” the feeling. So, you might still be asking… how did we get so hooked on email and tweets and Facebook and the rest in the first place, especially when the cost to productivity is so obvious?

Say California researchers, the reason you have such a tough time stopping yourself from checking your email or whatever other inputs you’ve got going is simple.

It’s because it delivers dopamine “squirts” to your brain. You get hooked, it turns out, to that series of tiny excitements as one email after another rolls in.

Not unlike the smoker taking his first puff after a long international flight… or a drinker getting a martini after a long day in the salt mines.

It’s a joy to get the jolt, over and over again. And without it, you learn to feel perpetually bored. But it’s a bigger issue now than ever, says Richtel.

Today, we’re hit with three times as much daily media as we were in the 1960s. What’s more, your average computer user visits 40 web pages per day.

Think about that.

We email colleagues at the next desk. We tweet our insights to friends, then meet up with nothing to talk about. We bask in the glow of unending online Facebook reunions, without actually seeing the people we’re “talking” to for years on end.

It’s all got its merits.

Business-wise, it’s been amazing. Many a direct-response company has been saved thanks to new media. Some have learned how to turn it into $100s of millions per year. And I’m happy to be one of the beneficiaries.

But what’s it tell you when even the Pope feels like it’s time to weigh in? Here’s what he told the NYT:

“Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world…

“In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

(Intrigued? You can check out Papal (no, I didn’t mean to write “Paypal”) proclamations like this one in eight languages, courtesy of the Vatican’s iPhone app. I kid you not.)

But addiction and virtual loneliness are just the beginning of the problem. Even bigger, in my opinion, is the illusion of productivity that goes with all this message fueled effort.

It gives us the illusion, yes, that we’re getting lots done. We are, if the email feeds are to believed, multi-tasking our way through lots of things that demand our attention, all at once.

The document feedback, the afternoon call, the kid’s b-day party… when you bang out a message on each in under a few minutes, you feel like you’re changing the world.

But multi-tasking, says Richtel’s research for his article, is bunk. An illusion. If you think you’re good at it, he suggests, there’s a likelihood you’re kidding yourself.

How so?

First, let me freely admit, I’m not a multi-tasker at all. I never have been. Walk and chew gum? I’m lucky I get through breakfast without falling out of my chair.

Without 100% focus, I can’t work.

That makes me a pain in the you-know-what to be around during the day. I scowl when I type, I’m told. And look up at interruptions like I’m ready to bite.

And I don’t doubt it. Because I now that once I stop, I’ll need another half hour to get rolling again.

I’ve always felt a little bad about that.

But it turns out, according to what Richtel says is “half a century of proof,” many more of us are that way than I ever imagined.

What’s more, you’re probably better off resigning yourself to focusing on one thing than you realize.

Even though, with your email alerts dinging and your cell-phone vibrating, it doesn’t always feel that way.

When you multi-task, says a particular set of scientists from the University of San Diego, it might feel like you’re doing a lot at once.

But what you’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks. And most likely, you’re not doing it well.

Think cocktail party and trying to register two conversations simultaneously… think airline pilot tweeting to his girlfriend during a landing… think surgeon calling the deli for a roast-beef on rye, while he’s wrapping up a brain operation.

If we’re paying attention to one process, say the tests, our brains are hard-wired to ignore everything else. Even if only for microseconds at a time.

So what, if we get it done, right?

I know one guy who writes with the TV on, he says. And he’s good. I know others who keep IM and email windows open and cell phones within reach. And they all still earn a good living.

But you have to wonder, how much better would they do without the willing distractions? Maybe a lot better, if these findings are right.

In fact, the research even shows that those that cling their multi-tasking beliefs end up being SLOWER in tests than the single-minded simpletons, who score better at both noticing small details and juggling when forced to balance between different assignments.

I guess what I’m saying is… wait, hang on a sec… I just got an email… this is good… ha… I’ll be right back, I swear…

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When Numbers Lose Meaning…

You see numbers a lot in sales copy.

The dollars you could make, the amount of pounds you could lose, the number of weeks it could take you to feel half your age… and the list goes on.

This past week, though, I’m guessing you’ve seen a lot of numbers… all tied to one event… that have started to lose their meaning.

I’m talking about Haiti.

You can’t have your head above water, pretty much anywhere on the globe, without hearing about it. And always with the  numbers close behind.

A 7.0 earthquake… as many as 90% of buildings destroyed… tent cities of 50,000 and more… hundreds of bodies piled up outside the city morgue… as many as 200,000 dead… hundreds of thousands more trapped under rubble or horribly maimed in rescue attempts.

Of this one: 20 feet by 100 feet. That’s the size of the mass graves they’re digging, because it’s a race now against the discovery of more dead… with 70,000 victims already buried but more on the way.

Of course, there are numbers on the other side of the story, too. Some 10,000 US troops sent to help… and thousands more from the EU, Asia, and elsewhere. And nearly $900 million in aid pledged by countries at a world — even when a lot of those countries can little afford it.

Plus the thousands saved from collapsed buildings. Or the 14,000 ready-to-eat meals and 15,000 liters of water that were air dropped into the capital today. With up to two million Haitians desperately in need of food aid right now, it’s barely a start… but it’s something.

Yet, have you noticed how trying to take in the vastness of a tragedy like this… as in the tsunami that slammed Asia years back… is just too overwhelming?

Seeing it in statistical panorama, through the wide-angle lens of objective reporting, somehow dehumanizes the most tragically human aspects of the event.

But then someone on the ground pulls you in to a moment, and that changes everything.

For five days, for instance, the parents of 8-month old Jean-Louis Brahams waited while rescuers cleared away the heavy rubble of what used to be their home.

They were sure their baby had been crushed, but then a neighbor heard him cry. He’s dehydrated but alive, and in the care of medics at an Israeli field hospital.

So is the 18-month-old girl who survived under the remains of her home for six days. Miraculously, she had no injuries. Nobody else in her family was as lucky.

And then there’s Marie-France. She got trapped under a double-reinforced steel door when a row of shops collapsed. It took a dozen saws to cut a narrow tunnel. Then they had to dangle a doctor by his feet, so he could perform the amputation that saved her life.

There’s also Rick Santos, the aid worker who was trapped with three others under the rubble of what used to be the Montana Hotel. They survived by passing around the only food they had — a single lollipop.

After three days in pitch darkness, Santos suddenly saw start in the night sky — French firefighters had broken through. Two of his colleagues have since died from their injuries, but Santos and a doctor from New Jersey are alive.

Then there’s the seven-year old girl trapped in a crushed supermarket, who survived four days on a box of dried fruit rolls… and two-year-old Mia, who survived three days in the rubble of what used to be her kindergarten classroom…

Soon, you’re in the numbers again.

But numbers that have names and faces, stories and families, lives and jobs, and things that make sense to you.

Now you’re not thinking statistics, but maybe what it would be like to lose your own child or your own parents…

Or maybe to be under that rubble yourself, hoping the scraping sound you hear is somebody trying to dig you out.

Lose an arm, but get to live. Get to live, but lose a son or a daughter that you stayed up with at night. Outside of the statistics, the real scope of suffering becomes clearer.

Only then can you multiply that by 10… 100… 1,000… even millions of lives that just changed forever… and get even an inkling of why and how much all those individuals, thrown together by one terrible and random event, still need our help.

Right now, I’m betting it’s a little easy to think — you can admit it — that there’s been so much coverage on this so far, that the donations are already rolling in.

It’s easy too to worry that a lot of that money will never make it to the people who need it most anyway. Because scam artists never seem to miss an opportunity, even during something like this.

But they need it, still.

What can you do?

Some of my friends and colleagues have done a brilliant job of picking out the best ways for you to funnel any help you can give to the what’s already an inspiring but overwhelmed global effort.

Maybe I can offer you something to cover both what they’ve mentioned and some they might have missed, in this guide: http://ow.ly/YbAp

It’s a comprehensive list from the unbiased charity watchdog site, charitynavigator.org (see today’s missing link).

They name 51 three-and-four-star rated charities, all with a track record of this kind of disaster relief, work in Haiti, and a long history of putting as much of the donated money as possible directly into giving aid rather than into their own administrative operating costs.

It also shows you how to tell the real pleas from the scams, how to give without writing or mailing a check, and more.

At least consider taking a look at the link. Pick one of the charities that fits the way you think and read thbackground on what they do. And then, if it works for you, think about what you could give. Even if it’s just $50 or $20 or $10.

Not because anybody says you have to, but because there are times when that’s just what you should do.

And because you can hope that, if you’re ever in a similar situation, it’s what someone would do for you, too.

P.S. I just used the same site to make a donation to Doctors Without Borders, because they’ve worked in Haiti for 19 years and operate three emergency hospitals there already.

It took me six minutes, start to finish. I used a credit card, the transaction was 100% secure, and it’s tax-deductible.

But again, there are many other ways to help. You can take a look here if you’re looking to decide: http://ow.ly/YbAp

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How Ben Franklin Learned to Write

Ben Franklin, master copywriter?Eight times, Ben Franklin crossed the Atlantic.

 France, Spain, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany — he hit them all. And his fame reached even further. His ideas were talked about in Sweden, Russia, China, even North Africa, all during his lifetime.

 It was Franklin who discovered the Gulf Stream. He also invented swim fins, the odometer, and bifocals. And it was Franklin who also came up with Daylight Savings Time, as a joke for a Paris newspaper.

 (He never realized it would catch on).

 But for all his accomplishments, there’s one thread that’s common to all of them. The man could write like a dream.

His writing is what helped pass on his legacy as a founding father. It’s what made him one of the most persuasive diplomats in US history. And it’s one of the main reasons we remember so much of what he did today.

 “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” he once said. Well put. And he did both. Which is why I’m evoking the spirit of Ben in today’s article, so he can teach us what he learned.

 See, before Ben became one of America’s best known and influential writers, he wasn’t much of a writer at all.

 Or at least that’s what his father thought.

 At one point, he scolded Ben for what he felt was the low quality of writing in letters written to a friend. The letters, he told Ben, “lacked eloquence.”

 So Ben set out to make a change. He invented a precise system for teaching himself to write better, which you can find outlined in Ben’s famous autobiography.

 Here’s how it works…

 1) Role-Model Reading: Before Ben wrote, he read. Often and a lot. Ben picked out a piece of writing he admired and actually wanted to imitate — The Spectator — and studied it, front to back. He made notes on the outline and structure of paragraphs. He memorized the phrases. He noted the general themes in the piece. That taught him the style used by the authors he admired.

 You can do this just by digging into the travel magazines and books you already like to read. Not the way you once did, flipping the pages. But really read. Study them for structure. How do they start? What’s common between one article and the next? And what’s not? Spend at least 30 minutes a day studying travel pieces this way. You’ll be shocked at how much better your writing will become.

 2) Flatter By Imitation: This was one of Ben’s favorite tricks. I’m predicting it’s the one you’ll talk about one day when you’re teaching someone else how to write. It’s simple. Just take one of those pieces of writing you admire and copy it. Literally. Word for word. You’ll pick up nuances you never knew were there. And, except for a sore elbow, it’s some of the most painless education you’ll ever undergo.

 Of course, Franklin took this exercise even further:

 “I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again.”

 That is, not only studied the original and copied its techniques, he actually tried to reproduce its key themes from memory… in his own words.

 Where he made mistakes, he’d fix them. But sometimes he found that just by rethinking the original ideas, he found ways to improve on them. And this happened more and more often as he wrote.

 Again, you can do the same. Take a few short travel articles, study them until you’ve soaked up the core ideas. Then on a blank sheet, try to write out the same ideas from memory, but in your own words. You’ll be surprised by what you remember. You’ll be even more surprised by the new ideas that pop into your head as you write.

 3) Organize Your Mental Toolbox: The real power of a good solid piece of writing is the part you DON’T see — the underlying outline.

 Franklin saw that too.

 He found, in his early rewrites of others’ works, that his thoughts got jumbled and confusing. So he took his paragraphs and copied them on pieces of paper. Then he reassembled them in an order closer to the original outline.

 You can take an outline from an article you like and use that to build a new article, even about a completely unrelated idea. It’s amazing how facts and details come together when you have a structure to hang them on.

 I do this all the time.

 When I’m researching, my notes come at random. The more I research, the more the framework takes shape. When I understand the idea I’m writing about, I stop to actually sketch out the outline. I actually have a program on my Mac that helps me do this — a feature in the Mac version of Microsoft Office called “Notebook Layout.”

 It looks exactly like a school notebook with tabbed pages. I type in my notes as they come. When I’m done, I drag and drop the tabs to reorganize the pieces according to my outline.

 Having an outline in advance lets you focus on gathering up ideas and details freely, because you know that later you have a tool to help you sort everything out and to put everything into place.

 Plenty of programs do this. Or you try using a handwritten outline and index cards.

 Franklin put his writing self-improvement system to good use. In his lifetime, he wrote thousands of articles, letters, and persuasive pitches for his ideas. Some helped sell Franklin stoves. Others helped sell the leaders of Europe on supporting young America. Mastering the printed word was the key to Franklin’s success.

It could be yours too. 

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How Business is Done

shakeonit1There’s a guy named Jack (just a coincidence). He has a son. The son is in his early 20s and unmarried. One evening after dinner, the father and son have a conversation.

“Son, I want you to marry a girl of my choice.”

“C’mon Dad,” says the boy, “I want to choose my own bride.”

“Yes, but the girl is Bill Gates’ daughter,” says Jack.

Says the son, “Well, in that case…”

The next morning, Jack gets a call through to Bill Gates.

“I have a husband for your daughter,” says Jack.

“But my daughter is too young to marry,” says Bill, startled.

“Yes,” says Jack, “but this young man will soon be vice-president of the World Bank.”

“Ah, in that case…”

That afternoon, Jack goes to see the president of the World Bank.

Jack steps into his office and says, “I have a young man to be recommended as a vice-president.”

Says the World Bank president, “But I already have more vice-presidents than I need.”

“Perhaps,” says Jack, “but this young man is Bill Gates’s son-in-law.”

“Ah,” says the President, “in that case…”

And that, my friend, is how business is done. Okay, perhaps not really.

But what I do like about this joke — which was passed along by a friend of ours in France — is that it just goes to show you that the real story behind so many successful people  is that they’ve made opportunities happen rather than wait for them to come along.

So what are you waiting for?

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Inspiration or Flat-Out Imitation?

Every great direct response copywriter can tell you what a valuable thing it is to have a “swipe file,” that burgeoning bin or desktop folder of winning promos crafted by other copywriters.

The idea, of course, isn’t to rip off the best of your colleagues… but rather to read, see what’s working, and use that to get your own creative juices flowing.

Not everybody gets that. Some people understand the concept, but go ahead and plagiarize anyway. Not good, folks.

And it looks like it’s not just a problem in direct mail or online advertising. For instance, Don Hauptman recently sent me a clip from the New York Times that Madison Avenue pros might be taking the, er, “borrowing” technique a bit too far.

Honda Motors and the Subway sandwich shop chain, both have ads out there centered on the old “Odd Couple” sitcom theme song. Coincidence? Maybe.

Maybe so, too, for Visa and the “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” movie trailer, who both featured the same instrumental piece of music in their commercials… borrowed from the 1985 movie, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”

Or the three ads from Dell, Sears, and Wal-Mart respectively — each with the “make holiday wishes come true” story line. And the movie trailer for the new “Beowulf” movie, which harkens back to the campaign advertising the blockbuster flick “300.”

Lots of ideas strike lots of people at the same time.

But it just goes to show you, you’ve got to work that much harder to be original with your message.

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Beat the Natural Limit on Creativity

brainhalvesI’m sure, by now, you’ve heard that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. The idea is that “left-brained” people are the type you’d expect to find at, say, your accounting firm’s Christmas party.

“Right-brained” people, on the other hand, tend to be more artistic and possibly a little eccentric or scattered. Like, say, the bulk of ex-poets and actors working the tables at your local coffee shop.

Like most generalizations, this isn’t quite right.

While many of us have a bias in either creative or rational powers, the fact is that most people have both halves of their brain kicking into gear most of the time.

On the left-side, we’re processing details and performing convergent thinking. On the right side, we’re applying abstract associations between details, the work of divergent thinking.

Stroke patients who lose power on the left side of their brains tend to lose logic and language, but may suddenly become more creative. Patients who suffer right-side damage may seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

The good news is that both left and right brain can work together to produce a result that’s both logical AND creative.

Take Einstein.

Certainly, he had incredible powers of logic and process. He did the math, just as it had been done before he came along. But he also made the leap to creativity, finding new mathematical associations nobody else had recognized before.

Here’s the better news…

While few of us want a touch of neuron damage… and almost none of us, surely, were born an Einstein…

There actually ARE ways you can increase your creative function. And many of them simply have to do with channeling the filtering function of your left-brain.

One very simple way is just to keep reminding yourself to approach most moments in your life with curiosity.

Another is to consistently reset your attitudes toward convention. That is, simply repeat to yourself that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way the always have to be done.

There there’s what researchers call “detail fermentation.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “do your homework.” It’s also the explanation I typically give when I tell people I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”

That is, when you fill your mind with facts and data and details relevant to the ideas you’re trying to create, the more likely you are to succeed at creating them.

Somehow, satisfying the left brain’s hunger for logic and process first… allows it to relax and let the right brain step in to find the overall creative associations between those details.

Einstein did this while searching for “E=MC2.” For years, he studied not just physics and mathematics, but astronomy and philosophy and other fields too.

So the next time you’re feeling like a failure creatively, before you give up try this tapping into this technique instead: Stop, drop, and study. Dig into the facts and materials you have to work with. Then, and only then, see if the bigger and better ideas come.

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A Persuasion Secret Toddlers Teach

BabyBjornPotty.png Every copywriter should have a kid. Seriously.

How so?

By way of explanation, let’s start here: Everything we do is dictated by the “why” behind it. As in, the only reason why we would change our behavior to get a certain outcome. Not to mention, the radical failures we face if we don’t correctly target those incentives when trying to persuade others to undertake some kind of action.

Having a toddler in your life, however, is like a shortcut to the same education.

Take our little fella (he’ll kill me if he stumbles across this post about his early years). See, as new parents we were faced with a dilemma. He was starting pre-school. And by the rules, he had to be, er… let’s just say that, regal as he was, he and a certain porcelain throne had yet to build a natural relationship.

In our son’s preschool, that was grounds for non-admittance. Potty-trained or no place at the table. So went the orders from on high. A nerve-wracking thought, no doubt, for any parent. But here was the big problem — we had put off his training for so long, we had only a little over a week left before pre-school started.

Ack.

So I went to all the “how to” websites. Don’t rush the kid, they said. This could take “a month… two or three months… even half a year.”

Double ack.

We had exactly 11 days. First we tried begging. Then we tried the “no safety net” technique — that’s where you take off the diaper and hope the kid hates the feeling of insecurity so much, he’ll tell you when it’s time to grab him and run for the facilities. Neither approach worked.

But with about nine days left, we figured their had to be a better way… and we worked out one that would make the Freakonomics fan club proud (okay, we got it from online… but it worked just the same).

What did we do? We came up with an audience-targeted incentive.

First, we drew a chart with a cartoon of the potty in the corner (yes, I’m really writing an article about this). Then we bought some stickers. And a bag of chocolates. Every “performance,” we told our son, got a reward.

Did it work? Like gangbusters.

Just over a week later, we have a chart full of stickers and a kid who (sniffle) was just growing up too dang fast. We successfully shuffled him off to school. “So is he potty-trained,” they asked. “Of course,” we said, full of false incredulity.

I’m not saying stickers and chocolates will work for, say, selling commercial office space or negotiating a trade treaty. But you get the gist: So often, the secret to persuasion is just figuring out the right incentive for the audience you’re targeting.

Get that and everything else should fall in place.

(Gee, this parenting thing is easy, isn’t it? 😉

* P.S. This little article first ran two years ago… and we’ve since successfully used the same technique with our daughter. I’ve yet to get it to work for selling subscription-based products, though!

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Sales Secrets from a Novel Writer

books2Do rules of writing great fiction come in handy when you’re writing to make a sale? Conventional wisdom might say no, since sales writing isn’t really supposed to be “art”… and your average fiction writer would shiver to share a table with copywriters. But the truth is, they’ve got plenty in common.  

For instance, we all know one of the greatest ways to draw somebody into a sales pitch is simply by telling a good, well-constructed story. Here’s what fiction-writing great Kurt Vonnegut had to say about that…

First rule: Don’t waste the reader’s time.

Then, he says, the fiction reader needs a character they can root for. In sales, I’d say that’s equivalent to giving the prospect HOPE that you can solve his problem. Which is what sales teasers are all about.

 Vonnegut also urges fiction writers to write sentences that “reveal character and advance the action.” The analogy here is also easy. In sales, your every sentence reveals a little more about the proposition… and tempts you to read on.

 One more good tip that translates, “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible… to heck with suspense.” What he meant was not that you blurt out the punch line, but that readers need to know early why they’re investing themselves in the story. Obscuring that only risks making the tale you’re telling seem not worthwhile.

 So, instead, try dangling that in front of them right away. In your first line, give them a glimpse at the heart of your message. Maybe even of the ending you’ll drive them toward. Done right, you’ll almost guarantee that they’ll read on.

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How One Big Idea Trumps Lots of Small Ones

“Shut up and listen,” I said. I was talking to Michael Masterson, the great copywriter, publisher, and best-selling author.

Had I lost my mind? Not at all.

Rather, I was summing up the core idea behind one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

That, in my opinion, is the key idea behind that book. And the fact that it’s so easily defined has a lot to do with its success.

Michael came back with another example… I delivered a third… and the volley went back and forth, until we ran out of ready examples.

It wasn’t a game.

See, Michael and I — along with another brilliant copywriter, Bill Bonner — had just finished running four straight days of an intensive, private copywriting bootcamp.

It happens every year.

We meet in a French country chateau. We drink wine. And we stay up late, playing guitars. During the day, we work on copy.

We had around 25 writers attending. Some with years of experience, others just months. Some had just been hired, weeks earlier.

We rehashed lots of fundamentals. We even came up with a few new breakthrough discoveries, some of which I may — or may not — share with you here in the months ahead.

But over and over, in the classic writing samples we looked at and in the new copy our workshops produced, one thing was abundantly clear: The tighter and more isolated the core idea, the more powerful the result.

Without exception.

One Big Idea, Clearly Expressed

Think about it.

When you have a “great” conversation read a “great” book… or see a “great” documentary… what grabs you? Is it the litany of small details? Or the golden thread that unites them?

More often, for most of us, it’s the latter.

And the more you “get” the core idea behind a story, a speech, a revelation… the more memorable that one core message becomes.

This is just as true in sales copy.

One message, well developed, just has more impact than ads — short or long — that are overloaded with competing ideas.

Don’t believe me?

100 Headlines That Prove The Point

For this article, I decided to go looking for strong ads that featured single secrets, single solutions, and single ideas… to see if that list was as long or longer than one showing a much wider reaching,
more thinly spread approach.

First I looked in a digital “swipe” file I have on my desktop. In there, I have over 200 snapshots of winning direct mail and print ads. Some old, some new.

Overwhelmingly, the theory proved true.

But I had  picked up a lot of these sample ads randomly. Would the theory hold up if I went to a more recognized resource?

Maybe you’ve heard of Victor Schwab.

Advertising Age calls Schwab the “greatest mail- order copywriter of all time” and a pioneer in advertising research.

Nobody, arguably, has ever been a more devoted tester of headlines, layouts, offers, and copy appeals than Schwab.

He was also one of the first copywriters to lay down a persuasion “formula” for sales copy, in 1941. And his classic book, “How to Write a Good Advertisement,” is a must-read staple on the bookshelves of ardent copywriters everywhere.

One of the things you can find in Schwab’s book is a list of what he called the “top 100 headlines.”

It made no sense to scan the list for only single- idea-driven examples. They were the majority, by far.

Instead, I looked for only headlines that looked more like the multiple-idea type. And get this — out of a list of 100 headlines, only 10 were NOT clearly single-idea based.

Something else: Even those 10 multiple-idea ads still clearly had an implied “golden thread” that bound the whole thing together.

Take a look.  And remember, this is the list of headlines that DON’T appear at first to fit the single-idea theme we’re talking about…

  • “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”
  • “Five Familiar Skin Troubles — Which Do You Want
  • to Overcome?”
  • “Have You These Symptoms of Nerve Exhaustion?”
  • “161 New Ways to a Man’s Heart — In This
  • Fascinating Book for Cooks”
  • “Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?”
  • “Six Types of Investors — Which Group Are You
  • In?”
  • “The Crimes We Commit Against Our Stomachs”
  • “Little Leaks That Keep Men Poor”
  • “67 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer
  • Our Ad a Few Months Ago”
  • Free Book — Tells You 12 Secrets of Better Lawn Care”

Would they have worked even better if each focused on only one thing — rather than a list — right here in the headline? Maybe. But notice that even though they don’t, each clearly points toward a
single, over-arching theme.

Meanwhile, out of the 90 single-idea headlines, just ake a look at how instantly clear and engaging these “core big idea” examples are…

  • “The Secret of Making People Like You”
  • “Is the Life of a Child Worth $1 to You?”
  • “To Men Who Want to Quit Work Someday”
  • “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?”
  • “How a New Discovery Made a Plain Girl Beautiful”
  • “Who Else Wants a Screen Star Figure?”
  • “You Can Laugh at Money Worries — If You Follow This Simple Plan”
  • “When Doctors Feel Rotten This is What They Do”
  • “How I Improved My Memory in One Evening”
  • “Discover the Fortune That Lies Hidden In Your
  • Salary”
  • “How I Made a Fortune with a ‘Fool Idea'”
  • “Have You a ‘Worry’ Stock?”

Here’s an added benefit: Starting off in the headline with just one, simple idea makes writing the rest of the sales letter easier..

How so?

Finding the core idea, of course, is the hard part. It has to be precise, not scattershot. You have to know your audience and know them well. Or you risk missing your target completely.

But hone in on the right promise, the right hook, the right singular theme at the start… and writing the sales copy that supports it underneath suddenly gets easier.

You know where you’re headed. You know which tangents to look out for. And you know, too, when you’re ready to wrap up your pitch… because you’ll know when you’ve said all you need to say.

I think back to my own promos and it’s true. Those that worked best were the most focused on one message. Those that flopped were those that wandered. I’ll bet the same is true for you.

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