Category: Writing Style

Find the writing style your target customer will respond to.

How To Tame Technology

bigbrotherIt’s not always easy to know where technology will take us.

Still, you’ll want to do what you can to stay ready.

What happens, for instance, to copywriters in the digital age? Up until now, I’ve heard lots of people wax on about how different the online customer is from the customers you’ll write copy for in print. And for the most part, I consider that hogwash. People are people and bring their same desires and fears to the Internet.

But one thing that’s definitely true about the world of online marketing is that it has closed distances and allowed lots of small “niche” markets to come together. Something else that’s true is that the pace of exposure to those markets has exploded. So has the volume of exposure, in total products available.

So what’s that going to mean for you, the copywriter?

Quite a bit. If you want to survive, bottom line, you’ll have to make a few changes.

For instance, you’ll want to…

Write faster. With more markets breaking up into smaller segments, with more customers reachable online, and more niche products to sell, that means the demand for copy goes up.

So does the exposure to marketing messages. So does the competition for the customer’s attention. Marketing copy will get exposed more frequently, tire more quickly, and need more testing to find what ultimately works.

Demand for your copywriting skills should soar. But how quickly you can crank out a workable draft is more important than ever before.

Nurse your passions. The more focused, the more targeted the customer, the more easily he’ll spot a faker when he sees one. This is another reason why you should write copy, if you can, that sells to a special interest you already ‘get’ and get well… yourself.

Because when you’re passionate about what you’re selling, it comes across. You use the write lingo to talk about it, you have the right appreciation for the fine points. And more likely than not, you’ll already have the right connection with your target audience.

Know the niches. One-profile-fits-all is no longer the modus operandi of savvy marketers. To be honest, it hasn’t been for a long time. Breaking down markets into special interests has been the name of the game for as long as just about any of us can remember.

The only thing that’s changed now is that figuring out who those segments are and what they want has just gotten easier. Thanks especially to search engine tools, keyword tracking, online forums and user-run recommendations sites, and more.

But the better you ‘get’ what the niche customers care about, the better you’ll be at coming up with products or pitches that will sell inside of this increasingly narrow focus.

Know the products. Just like it’s going to make a big difference for you to better understand the niche customer, you’ll need to know the nitty-gritty details about the increasingly niche products too.

Not just because the products will be more specialized and therefore different from what you knew before, but also because niche customers are a lot more focused and educated too.

If you start talking about a product without fully understanding it yourself, the niche customer will spot your fakery from a mile off.

Discriminate better. No more taking on ‘sad sack’ projects, hopeless cases, or copy quagmires… ever again. In a world where the flood of products is rising, there are bound to be more duds out there than ever.

If you can’t sell it or it simply isn’t good enough to sell, most of the time, you’ll have to learn to say no. That doesn’t mean you have to shun every orphaned opportunity. Some might thrive, to the shock and pleasure of the client, with just a few unexpected tweaks.

However, other products are just duds. The reason they don’t sell well is because they don’t deserve to. If you’re absolutely sure this is the case with any new project, politely decline the gig and walk away. There’s no time for messing with these half-baked opportunities anymore.

Make sure you take your best shot. In archery, they tell you to aim twice before pulling the trigger. In copy today, do the same. That is, if you’re writing a new promo, keep an extra document page open at the same time. Call it “test leads.” Whenever an idea comes up for an alternate headline, jot it down in this second doc.

I try never to submit a package without at least one test lead. Sometimes, as many as four test leads and an original, all at once. In one recent case, I even wrote three entirely different versions of the whole promo. Without charging an extra dime. Why?

Because most of my copy gets tested online, where running alternate versions is cheap (nearly free). I get a royalty on every sale, no matter which promo wins. So I figure getting more than one iron in the fire more than takes up the slack.

Get savvy. Copywriting was always a gateway to other kinds of knowledge. List marketing, printing, design, even people management — you’ll know a little of everything before you’re through.

These days, it pays to get savvy about a few things copywriters didn’t even talk about just a few years ago. Like how search engines work, what a website should look like, email marketing and editorial, and so on.

You might even need to apply the same ideas to selling your own services. With an eletter of your own, for instance. Or a blog or website that shows samples of your work.

Expand your offer. The need to crank out copy faster is just one way to stay ahead of the “niche” curve. You’ll also want to look for other ways to monetize your talents.

Consulting on other people’s copy, for instance, for a fee. Or taking on student writers in a swap for some of their royalties. (I’m already booked up with writing students and mentored projects, for instance.)

The bottom line:

Be aware that you can’t just write for the big hits anymore. There’s definitely still a big “hits” market there. But you’d be passing up an explosion in niche marketing opportunities that’s just too lucrative too ignore.

Also be aware that the demand for good copy will soar yet again, as more and more products come to market. But that “good” copy will increasingly be defined not only how clean it reads, but by how precise and narrowly focused it is on the niches that will see it.

Not to mention, on how fast you can deliver it.

More

Anger in the Age of E-Mail

angryIt’s natural to get angry. And certainly, some pretty hot-tempered, “hair-trigger” individuals have still managed to do some very great things. But I raise this point for a reason.

See, you’d be surprised… shocked… unpleasantly stunned… by how one hot-tempered moment can undo years of building your career credentials. Yet, especially in the world of email, misunderstandings and flare-ups happen more than ever.

As a copywriter, I’d venture the likelihood is even higher, since the role actually requires that we constantly subject ourselves to critiques and directly measurable marketing results.

I once had a feud that lasted six months with a marketing manager who just wouldn’t get around to mailing my promo (when she did, finally, it became the control for two years).

Was it worth it?

Not a minute of it. The long emails I never sent. The ranting to co-workers on the telephone. All a waste of time, in retrospect. Not to mention what they must have thought of me after the call.

What do you do if you get into a hairy, hostile situation professionally? Some suggestions from the Wall Street Journal

Delay your reaction. Count to 10. Wait 24 hours. Save the long, angry email as a “draft” and reevaluate hours or even days later.

Go elsewhere. Withdraw to another room, another office, another venue. For a few minutes or a few hours. See if you’re still as hot under the collar when you return.

Vent discretely. To a friend. A journal. Or just open a Word doc on your computer and start typing, “The trouble with so-and-so is…” Don’t stop until you’ve run out of steam. Then delete the document.

Agree then ask. “Yeah, you might be right… and if that’s true, tell me what you would do in the same situation.”

See the result. Net-net, what’s the outcome you’re after? Abandon revenge and make this outcome your target instead.

All easier said than done. And sure, I have my own hard time keeping my temper reigned in sometimes. But I can tell you this. Whenever I fail to respond coolly, I always regret it afterward.

Don’t you?

More

The Fastest Way to Master Copywriting

speed

What’s the fastest way to master copywriting… or anything, for that matter?

You could sign up for the courses online. You can read all the books. You can go to the seminars, drink protein shakes at the keyboard, or slaughter goats at the foot of a guru. And all are good, except maybe the goat bit. 

But there’s an even easier way.

Said Edmund Burke, “It is by imitation that we learn everything.” Of course, he was just copying Aristotle who had said it a couple thousand years earlier.  Classical Roman rhetoricians taught the technique as “imitatio.” And then there was Ben Franklin, who educated himself using an imitation technique he describes in his autobiography.

Who else? Before Stephen King wrote blockbusters, he wrote out passages of “Moby Dick” over and over in college.  Virgil did the same with passages of Homeric verse. Daniel Defoe holed up with a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and copied it out a few times, long before launching into “Robinson Crusoe.” 

Painters, actors, and musicians — imitating the masters plays a key role in all their training.

I’ve even got a local example for you: My wife is a classically trained musician with a graduate degree in Baroque opera. At the conservatory, aside from actually singing the arias, she and fellow students had to sit down with fat scores of famous pieces and write them out — note for note — over and over again.

Once, she says, she and three friends once spent 72 hours hand-copying all 300 pages of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion. After finishing, they had to write their own fugues, but with Bach-esque flourishes sprinkled generously throughout. 

Here’s where the magic happens. The bridge between strict imitation and your own mastery is the spark that awakens, shapes, and educates that handy little tool we all call “creativity.”

Even in the natural world, you’ve got your irrefutable examples. Think about it. Not only do babies learn to speak by imitation. But also, beavers learn to build dams by imitation. Seals learn to swim by imitation.  Lions learn to hunt by imitation. Zebras learn to run by imitation.

So what’s stopping copywriters? Imitation, for some, has a stigma. It feels like cheating. Or a lack of confidence. Or maybe… illegal. And yes, if you’re talking about copying someone’s work and then passing it off as your own… that’s just not kosher. It’s even counter-productive to the growth of your own talents.

However, what we’re talking about here is different.

You’re copying — verbatim — the best stuff. But only to learn, in a way that you just can’t do by memorizing theory or learning from books and seminars, what’s working between the lines of the ads you’re studying. It’s an education of the subconscious. And you’ll be surprised by how well it works.

To try it yourself, do this:

First, get your hands on a blockbuster sales letter that’s similar to whatever you’re selling. Make sure it’s a good one and not a dud. Check the marketing reports, talk to the product managers, get on the mailing list.

When you’ve picked your piece, and before you do anything else, read it. Front to back, at least twice. Getting familiar with the words before you start copying will help you stay focused during the actual work of the exercise.

And here’s where the real benefit begins, in the last step.  You’re not going to do anything complicated.  You’re just going to copy out the sales letter page by page, word for word.  All of it.  If it’s too big to do in one sitting, then I recommend you spread out the task over a few days, a week, whatever you need.  But try to put in at least a half hour to 45 minutes each time you sit down.

And yes, I do believe you have to do this by hand on paper and not at the keyboard. Why? Studies show we learn differently when taking notes by hand. Where those studies are right now, I don’t know. But really, I promise, they’re out there. Anecdotally, though, I can tell you that I can touch-type so automatically that I can daydream while reading the words. They seem to flow straight from eyes to fingers. 

Yet, when I write on paper, I have to stay fully focused on the task. I read a line, remember it, then turn to the page to right it out. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s much more effective. But what if you hunt-and-peck when you type? Well… maybe… but I strongly recommend the pen and paper approach. 

Think of the martial arts master. Slow movements and perfection. Not a rhinoceros plowing through the program. Yes, you’re knodding, you’ll try this. It sounds like a great idea. And I promise you, you’ll put it off… because frankly, it isn’t fun. And it makes your elbow hurt.

But I also promise you this: It’s worth it, in the end.

More

Life: Once Complicated, Now Easy

 It’s often said that you can use certain sales messages over and over because, let’s face it, our target audience is a marching army. Over and over, they revisit the same points in life… they discover the same needs and wants… we show them how to satisfy themselves… and the cycle just repeats.

 It may be only half true. 

For instance, while a lot about selling never changes — there are shades of expectations that can evolve quite a bit. Take today’s “lifestyle” cutbacks, thanks to the economy. What feels like ‘cutting back’ to today’s crowd is practically a step up in standards when you roll back nearly 30 years ago. On a more subtle level, that’s even true when you roll back just 10 years… or five years… or to a couple years ago.

 The modern consumer expects more. In some ways, they also expect to work less hard to get it. This just goes to show you that the promises you’ll make in your pitches can’t remain static. They have to keep getting bigger. Or at least, sounding bigger.

 Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I can’t tell you. After all, innovations happen when everyone from big companies to mom-and-pop outfits are pushed to compete and over-deliver.

 On the other hand, it can only go so far. There’s only so much luxury and accommodation we can sell before the expense of it breaks the system… or drains the consumer’s bank account and available lines of credit.

 So what happens when no marketers can afford to offer more… and no customers can afford to pay for it?

 Awhile back, the two mentors I mention most in these issues suggested a whole new consumer trend coming down the pipeline. After the wake-up call. After the bust. After the recovery.

 The Boomers, they predicted, would sideline their ambition for a life of luxury and convenience… and start yearning for something a little beyond the material. When they said that, I sniffed the wine. I figured they’d just gone a little loopy. But now I’m wondering… could they be right?

 Gene Schwartz once wrote, in his landmark book “Breakthrough Advertising,” that people’s superficial desires weren’t all that tough to spot.

 But only the best marketers knew that all people share an even deeper, second “secret” desire.

 It’s the desire not just for products, services or pitches we “like”… but a deeper desire for products and services that helps us flesh out our own ideas of who we are. Not to mention, who we could be. And maybe most important (to us) of all, who OTHER people think we are.

 I’ve long said — and I’m not the first — that the deepest desire most prospects (aka people) share is the desire to be loved and respected. Or at least, respected.

In good times, when it feels like everyone is getting richer and living larger than the next guy, respect comes from living like a king. Piling up stuff. Earning luxuries. Getting pampered.

 In tougher times, character starts to matter as much… or more. Austerity becomes honorable. Excess, an embarrassment. Security, prudence, sensibleness — those become the hot sellers.

 We start rolling back to the fundamentals. Looking for answers. Or at least, looking for people who seem like they have the answers… and the substance to back them up. Credibility, always important, becomes even more so.

 Could it be that this is where the Boomers — the biggest market in the history of capitalism and the driving force of most of over six decades of economic growth — are headed next?

 Maybe.

 Look, for instance, how many things have trended back toward fundamentals. Walk more, use glass not plastic, cook at home, eat natural, cut up your credit carts.

 It might well be out of necessity. Yet even necessity has a way of wooing her bedfellows. By simplifying, we may very well find ourselves in a position to also rediscover the things that matter.

 Is that why hype is dead? Is it why “relationship marketing” is the most powerful force, online? Is it why so many marketers love to talk about “brand,” not realizing that brands don’t matter until a consistent relationship of quality has been established?

 Your guess is as good as mine.

 But personally, I’m guessing yes. 

More

Short Words, Bigger Word Power

shortwordsIt’s brevity they say is the soul to wit. And If that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless. I grew up loving what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”

In high school, we called them “SAT Words.” These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.

Boy, did they get that wrong.

No sooner did I slip into the world of the written word, to discover that bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations, rather it obfuscates it. (That is, big words can make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)

Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess.

It’s not a book, per se. In all it’s 16 pages. And SMALL pages at that. What’s really impressive, however, is that the entire essay is written with one syllable words. (Talk about practicing what you preach!)

Burgess’ essay originally appeared in “Your Life” magazine in 1938.

Here are a few juice quotes that reveal the core idea:

“Short words must have been our first words when the world was young. The minds of men were raw… Their first words were, no doubt, mere grunts or growls, barks, whines, squeals like those of beasts. These rough, strange sounds were made to show how they felt. They meant joy or pain or doubt or rage or fear…

“But these sounds came, in time, to grow more and more plain as real words. They were short words, strong and clear. And these first short words, used by our sires way back in the dark of time, still have strength and truth. They are bred in our flesh and bone. We may well call such words the life blood of our speech.”

“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us — from our heats or guts — not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act… That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”

In other words, says Burgess, in a point that’s often ignored, short words have power. In poetry, sure. But also in sales copy too. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”

More

Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

salesdude.pngSponsors:

How to Start Selling Yourself as a Copy Expert

17 Ways to Make $17,000 From Your Desk Chair

************************************************

“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

***************************************************

Sponsor: What if You Never Had to Worry About
Having Enough Money, Ever Again?

What if you could retire within 18 to 24 months of right now — even if you’ve got little or nothing socked away in the bank — while still earning six figures every year?

Even if you aren’t looking to leave your day job, what if you could pad your income with an extra $25,000… $50,000… even $200,000… by spending just a little extra time doing this on Saturdays?

The guy who’s going to show you how puts his money where his mouth is, because he does this himself… and makes north of $200K extra each year (on top of the other $500K he makes).

And he says it only takes him a few hours each week. Wouldn’t doing even half that well be more than worth it? Absolutely. And you can set it all up in just three steps, online and from the comfort of your own home.

Even your neighbors won’t know how you do it.

Click here for details…

More

How to Ace Any Job Interview

frustrated-job-applicant.jpg Interviewers will tell you, they hire based on qualifications… experience… results… and so on and so forth, blah blah, etc.

Says Richard Wiseman, in his book “59 Seconds…” they’re mostly kidding themselves. And he’s got 30 years of psychological research to back him up on this point… including a joint study by the University of Washington and the University of Florida.

Two researchers followed the job searches of over one hundred students, from the creation of their resumes and their lists of qualifications through to the content of their interviews, replete with follow up thorough interviews and questionnaires.

The same researchers then contacted the interviewers and quizzed them too. They noted everything from general impressions to job requirements, skill matching, and so on. And, of course, whether the interviewers expected to make a job offer.

What was the key?

Not past experience. Not school performance or other qualifications. Not even embarrassingly low salary requirements or the cost of the suit worn to the interview.

Over and over again… it came down to how much the interviewer “liked” the interviewee. Yep. It came down to being irresistibly… personable.

Is that fair? I haven’t a clue. But it is what it is.

Gallup says the same, looking at presidential polling going back to the 1960s. Consistently, a candidate’s “likability” has more reliably predicted who will take the White House, more than any other factor.

Says the University of Toronto, the same goes for divorce — people others characterize as more “likable” end up about half as likely to get divorced. And doctors who rank as more “likable” are far less likely to get sued for malpractice, even if something goes wrong with a patient.

Likewise, says Wiseman, your “likability” can save your life — since doctors are more likely to urge pleasant patients to stay in touch and come back in for frequent checkups.

But what’s all this matter if you’re NOT looking for a job… getting married… visiting doctors… or seeking to run the country? Simple.

See, likability is simply another way of saying you’ve managed to persuade someone to trust you.

Both aren’t both those things — trust and persuasion — the very oxygen that sustains a good marketer and a good copywriter?

Yes, Cupcake. Yes they are.

If indeed that’s right, that you can persuade anybody to do anything just by being more likable… then how do you go about it?

Wiseman had a few tips. And in some ways, they’re not at all what you might think. For instance, he says, in interviews you might look to go in swinging, with a barrage of your best selling points right up front. After all, you want to impress… yes? No, actually. Not yet.

Research shows it’s much better, says Wiseman, to come in positive and personable… but to quickly get past a worrisome weakness first.

That way, you come across more genuine. People are less likely to trust you if you’re too perfect.

What’s more, says the same research, you’re also better off saving really impressive details for later. Why? For the same reason, coming in with them early sounds like boasting… holding them until later smacks of humility. It also lets the good bits linger longer, after the interview is over.

Reading that made me wonder, could the same be true in copy? Indeed it could. Think of the best classic ads of all time. Rags to riches and bumbling genius stories abound. (e.g. Every variation of “They laughed when I said…” ad ever written).

Likewise, consider what Dale Carnegie used to say. You’ll win more friends in two months, he said in his famous book about how to do just that, by developing a genuine interest in the people around you… than you will in two years of trying to make them interested in you.

In interviews, Wiseman says that means you need to show genuine interest in the company or client you’re trying to woo by knowing something about what they care about, by asking questions, and by offering a sincere compliment about something you admire.

And don’t be afraid to go off topic and chat — sensibly — with your interviewer about something he or she cares about too. Or rather, getting them to talk while you listen.

In copy, you do the same when you show you know what your prospect worries about… and when you do the work of finding out what they want a product to do for them in return.

You do that, too, when you use examples and analogies they can understand in their own terms… and when you tell them stories where they can see themselves, either as victim or hero.

In short, like the company looking to hire, your copy prospect is “interviewing” you and the product you’re selling, too. They want more than just the thing you’re offering. They want more than just the irrefutable data points you’ve dug up, too.

They want to know, most importantly, if they can trust you. They want to know… if they could learn to like you.

And will they?

If you don’t already think this way, you’ll be surprised how much it will change more than just your pitch. It will change the way you do business.

More

When Clichés Work “Like Gangbusters”

cliche pic.png I joked in an issue of my e-letter about writing “good,” and got a note from a reader soon after that said…

“So there I was reading my favorite newsletter writer and I come across, ‘For career success: lather, rinse, repeat.’ A cliche!

“Say it ain’t so. You’re beyond trite phrases and careless writing. So please don’t do it again. I can’t stand to be disillusioned.”

In my defense, this was my reply…

“Me, beyond trite phrases? Never!

“I admit that I agree — we need yet another hackneyed piece of writing like we need a hole in the head. There’s nothing worse, after all, than phrases as worn out as an old shoe. As writer and grammarian extraordinaire, William Safire, once said, ‘last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.’

“But please, when it comes to the ‘rules’ on using cliches, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, shall we? That is to say, with this knee-jerk critique, I fear you might be barking up the wrong tree.

“After all, while I know it’s never too late to learn something new about writing (better late than never, I always say) the tradition of using cliches in copy is about as old as dirt and not always the refuge of the village idiot, as you make it seem.

“In short, never say never.

“Because sometimes, frankly, a well-worn cliche can actually be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of a piece and you want to convey an idea both quickly and maybe with a little irony.

“To put it simply, the point of the article is to look at new challenges with innocence and new ideas, rather than falling back on the tried and true… and shopworn.  With the irony here being, that’s a piece of advice we’ll have to return to over a lifetime of writing, much in the same way a dog returns to his own vomit. It is an  insight that can only come from, well, experience.

“It is what it is.”

To which my reader wisely replied, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And so it is. Except when it isn’t. But that’s for another time.

More

The Details That Close Sales

magnifyMies van der Rohe, a twentieth-century architect, once said that God hides in the details. And says writer Anne Lamott, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

What is it that they know that we don’t? Not much, actually.

Since, after all, any good copywriter also knows that when you really… really… want to make for a powerful sales pitch, digging into the small details can be your most powerful technique. 

Here’s an example. Which of the following descriptions sounds better to you?

“I live on a big street in the city.”

Or…

“I live on a leafy, sun-dappled boulevard in Paris?”

For me, both are true. Because they’re one and the same.

But doesn’t the second “option” sound better?

Here’s another example…

Some years ago, I gave a copy seminar in Poland. I knew nothing about the country, honestly,
except what I’d seen on the news about labor strikes in the 1980s… and what I’d read in history books about World War II.

I came away, however, as travelers often do after seeing a totally new place up close. In fact, some of those images still stick with me today. It was, in short, a really nice place.

Oh… wait… just saying it was “nice” isn’t enough?

Okay, here’s more: Outside of Krakow, we saw an underground cathedral built deep inside a salt mine and decorated with a dozen crystal chandeliers and life-size religious statues made entirely of salt.

In the Royal Palace, the walls were covered with etched leather. On Sunday, we fed walnuts to the peacocks that wander Warsaw’s park. We dined on spinach-filled perogi and drank warm honey wine.

Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

“Nice” or the ones that actually painted a picture. No, I’m not writing a travel brochure here, but I’m sure you get the point. Those details that make the images more alluring, are what some writers call “actualities.” And they can make all the difference when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do anything in print.

See, many new copywriters get in the bad habit of painting their word pictures in only broad strokes. And sometimes, that’s enough. For instance, when you’re breezing past a point that’s already clearly imprinted on your prospect’s mind… and that’s been illustrated ad infinitum elsewhere.

But other times, you’ve got a lot of selling power locked in the “actualities” or fine details of the images you’re presenting or the product you’re selling.

Dig out the right ones and trot them past your prospect, and you could just unlock the selling opportunity that otherwise might have passed you by.

Here’s another example…

A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

For at least the last 17 years, the newsletter INTERNATIONAL LIVING has mailed a sales package that begins:

“You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

“The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

“A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

“For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven. But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”

What makes that work, in your mind?

The newsletter is about retiring overseas… it’s about travel to exotic, undiscovered places… it’s about a life transformation that begins when you take a step out into the world.

Could a letter selling the product possibly start in any other way? As it happens, in this case, they’ve never really beaten it… except with other letters that were just as focused on those fine and enticing kinds of travel details.

And even then, only for a short while.

Too much detail, of course, is just as much of a hindrance as too little. But just the right touch, like a dash of paint in just the right spot on a canvas… or a splash of the right spice in a stew… can make your copy incredibly powerful.

Here’s a rundown of what a really well chosen “actuality” can do…

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE “REAL”: The right “actuality” can give a story a much greater presence, a feel of truth.

IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE UNIQUE: Getting specific is often the fastest way to make average copy rise above the mean. Why?

Because the details prevent the reader from lumping your message in with other ones that would otherwise sound so similar. Simple enough.

IT CAN EXPRESS MORE IN A SMALL SPACE: Again, good description doesn’t mean writing longer. In fact, it often means the opposite.

A good word-picture example can make a message clear faster than a drawn-out explanation of a point.

IT CAN TRANSPORT THE READER: Like a good movie or book, where the audience gets lost in the story, careful use of detail can draw a prospect into getting “lost” in (wrapped up in) the excitement of your sales message.

How much detail is TOO much?

You need just enough detail to stir emotions and put images inside the reader’s head.

Some other tips…

* Try delivering the detailed image first, then follow up with a promise… either to deliver on a good image or to help a prospect avoid a bad one, depending on what you’ve presented.

* Focus on sensory details (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) and numbers. The former appeal most to emotions, the latter to logic.

* Use details to show transition or improvement: “Jeff Johansen used to take a city bus to the unemployment office. Now he drives an S-class Mercedes to the gym…”

* Describe an emotional reaction you want your prospect to feel. “Dear Friend, When I read the latest report from the FDA, I just about dropped my coffee mug. Let me show you what it said…”

You get the point. The goal of the actuality is simple. It is to allow the reader to see your writing as more than just word patterns on a white page.

More

A Surprising Storytelling Secret

stories book.png I recently gave a Skype interview on how to use stories to make sales.

I’m sure you guys know, I’ve talked about this a few times in my weekly e-letter (see the sign up box on this page).

We even had a full chapter on it, in the book “Great Leads,” which I wrote with copy mentoring great, Michael Masterson.

(I swear to you — it’s *finally* going up on Amazon.com, sometime this week. I’ll get you a link as soon as there’s one available.)

I had a great time doing the interview. Enough that I kept thinking of things I wanted to add, long after finishing the call.

I’d just come across a few great tips, for instance, from a semi-surprising source (though not so surprising when you think about it): Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the cartoon South Park.

Parker and Stone popped in on a freshman writing class at NYU –where yours truly also studied some screenwriting — to talk for a few minutes about how they keep their story ideas compelling.

One secret they offer is… get yourself a deadline. A hard, serious one that drives you. Stone and Parker write an episode per week. “We’ve got a scary deadline every Thursday morning.”

Another tip I’m sure you’ve heard before, which is to put your ideas out there quickly. Don’t wait until they’re fully baked. And when they get out there, make sure you’ve got a roomful of critics who understand they need shaping, rather than critics who will just shoot the idea down.

First ideas are rarely amazing.

And here’s the tip I like best. When you’re writing out a story to sell, to tell, or whatever… look for what writers call the “story beats.”

These are the spots where you plot twists and turns, the angles on which you frame an outline.

Once you have those beats, read through and see if you can put the phrase “and then” between each beat.

If you can… that’s a problem. Every “and then” is a moment where you could lose your reader (or viewer) to some distraction.

Better is writing that turns on the phrases “therefore” or “but.” That is, every moment in the story either forces the next one, creating continuity, or flips away from the last “beat” in a way that creates tension.

In selling, the stories you’re telling are usually short, just long enough to illustrate an idea or sneak in a proof or promise.

But this is a good way to think about your copy throughout, too. That is, is your sales letter just one long string of disconnected sales points? Or does it follow a flow that your reader can’t swim against?

And just when they think they know where you’re headed, are you waking them back up with a rhetorical explosion or “twist” of their expectations?

Something worth thinking about.

More