Category: Confidence

Failure, success, and how to gap the difference.

When It Pays to Praise

butterI’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I’ve given a few, too. And I’ve discovered there’s one essential element to making them effective: “ego butter.” Let me back up a bit, so I can explain by way of example.

Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved.

Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business. This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

But here’s the thing…

While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

No, not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been. But we are only human. Good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. Great ones put a little heart and soul into it too.

By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

The good writers, unlike our phone call friend, take it with a smile. But there’s a way to get an even better result. And it’s simple. You simply start with the positive.

Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately. “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

Pandering? Perhaps.

But what’s the goal of the critic? Is it to toughen the recipient’s skin or to get the best possible result?

(I, by the way, really DO think that the purest professionals become immune to most negative criticism. But when you’re in a situation where you’re giving direct review… still say this advice is going to get you further. Try it yourself and you’ll see. Or better yet, try the peer review technique perfected by my friends over at AWAI.)

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Seven Toxic Habits That Could Wreck Your Writing Career

“It is a great thing,” said Cicero, “to know our vices.”

With that in mind, let’s dig in and take a look at some positively poison habits that could dash any aspiring copywriters career. No, I don’t mean the biggies like gorging yourself on pizza… quaffing gin with breakfast… or hanging out with loose women and/or using that exercise bike you bought last year only as a towel rack.

Arguably, these are the habits that just make copywriters more interesting. But in this post, I’m only talking about the little work-related habits. Each of them all too easy for any copywriter, even one with the best intentions, to develop…

Bad Habit #1: Compulsive “Inboxing”

Here’s one of those bad habits where yours truly was once guilty as charged.

I’ll be frank. I’m a nut for technology. The nerd gene, in our family, runs long and deep. In 1981, my brother and I were using an early Apple desktop with a cassette tape drive and 300 baud phone line to log onto local “bulletin boards.” In the early 1990s, I was among the first in our office to use Compuserve via dial-up… and first to tap into search engines (remember “Archie” and “Veronica?” Way before Google’s time)…

 And even now, I’m about as armed as you can get with POP accounts, instant messaging, and all the rest. There isn’t anything I can’t FTP, bit-transfer, or digitally find. But still, I’ve learned one has to be careful. Even the best technology is a distraction if you let it intrude on your deadlines.

 Email especially.

 Over the last year, I consciously re-prioritized my email activity to fall later on my to do list. Emails no longer get answered instantly. Unless they’re urgent, they can wait for my reply. The results have been liberating. And profitable.

Ironically, you can find dozens of “productivity websites” offering exactly the opposite advice. Along with elaborate systems for keeping your inbox clear at all times, including how to empty out your inbox early as part of the “fresh start” for the day. And to those I say… baloney.

 Don’t get me wrong.

 Email is a valuable tool. It makes my laptop career possible, in more ways than one. But just answering emails around the clock won’t get the job done, no matter how productive it makes you feel at the time.

Which is a good way to segue into…

Bad Habit #2: Inverting the Checklist

 This too, is something I was once more guilty of than not. In fact, I still find myself slipping into this poisonous practice from time to time. By “inverting the checklist,” I’m talking about when you take your list of ‘must do’ items and flip it so that you end up doing the things of least importance first.

 Think about it.

 Most people write their checklists starting with the small details, especially the pressing items and immediate tasks. As you finish the list, the feelings of urgency fade and your imagination kicks in. You write out the big stuff, the life-defining things, the things about which you dare to dream.

 The next day, on the next to do list, you change the details on the front to much the newest, most pressing, undone stuff…

 Pick up dry cleaning. Send fax. Order paperclips.

 But the back half generally remains unchanged. And still, very general about the things you hope will eventually happen in your lifetime. Become a copywriting guru. Write the novel. See world. It’s an easy rut to fall into.

 But every success story you can imagine begins with somebody flipping that personal checklist around. The big, ambiguous accomplishments become the priorities. And the little niggling daily stuff gets pushed back, even dumped from the list entirely (though, hopefully, not to the level where personal safety, relationships, or hygiene will suffer TOO dramatically.)

 This, of course, is just as true for copywriting as it is for any other endeavor. You’ll make the most happen if you aim to get the big stuff done first. The secret is to pick the big goal and break that down with the same detailed fervor you applied to the less important details of past “to do” lists.

For instance, do you really want to be a six-figure copywriter? I get lots of emails from people telling me they do. But who also don’t think they can. I’m shocked, after digging deeper, to find out how many of those who have quit on the idea have yet to try landing even one client… have yet to try writing a full promo… have yet to even finish the exercises in whatever copywriting course they’re following.

 Each time, I lay it down: Yes, it’s true. Not everyone can succeed at this. Because not everyone has the “stuff” to do it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be such a lucrative career path. Still, you’ll get nowhere if you don’t get started. And getting started means more than sharpening pencils every morning. It means approaching and hitting the big milestones, step by step.

 Make a daily game plan to finish the course. Get on the mailing lists and read OPC (other people’s copy). Get that one client… offering to write on spec if you have to… as the first step in building your client list. And THEN come and talk to me, yah?

Bad Habit #3: Chronic Cathode Overloading

 Oh boy, is this one a tar trap.

 I’m talking of course about television. And here too, I want you to know I’m not throwing stones. I was notorious, as a child, for getting sucked into the boob tube. Turn one on a mile from where I stood, my jaw would drop and my eyes would go wide. Think the torture scenes in Clockwork Orange, but self-imposed and self-supervised.

 Then, by circumstance, I found myself without a television. For eight years straight, it stayed that way. And I couldn’t believe what happened. I started reading. A lot.

 Mind you, I was always a reader. But not like this. I plowed through books end to end, like a chronic smoker facing the firing squad. I bought classics for 50 cents a pop at the used book store. I picked up how to books on advertising, fiction writing, and guitar. History books. Philosophy. Biographies. And more.

Where my TV wasn’t, I had IKEA bookshelves eight feet high and filled to bursting with text. Even better, I couldn’t imagine how — during my TV watching days —  I had managed to find and then waste all that time.

 I confess, we have a TV again.  We rationalize it as a learning tool, for language, since the one TV we own we keep in our apartment in France. DVDs are now the danger. And the Internet. Both have a similar power for sucking up time. Still, I read plenty. Less fiction, since I don’t find as much of the modern stuff nearly as satisfying. But lots of books and articles related to what I’m writing about. Plus, I’m a heavy user of audio books on all kinds of subjects, from trade and finance to science and ideas of all different kinds.

 You don’t have to toss your TV. Especially not if it’s one of the brand spankin’ new flat screen variety. But do try switching it off… or even unplugging it… for awhile. A week. A month. And see what happens. You might be surprised.

Bad Habit #4: Writing from the Mountaintop

 No question, one of the things I love about my copywriting career is the isolation. An open window, a quiet room, the clack of the keyboard. It’s how I prefer working, most of the time. And it’s usually all I need to feel like the master of the universe.

 Still, there’s a danger to be aware of. Even as a writer, you can’t be alone with your ideas all the time. Because writers, even the great ones, grow stale in isolation. It’s the energy you draw with contact from other people that keeps your writing interesting.

 In copy, that means regular if occasional contact with colleagues and customers. Brainstorming meetings. Trade seminars. Company cocktail parties and, yes, happy hours. If you get the invitation to mingle with like minds, you shouldn’t pass it up. Make a point of staying in touch. Phone calls will do, but a few hours of face time is even better. Both social and professional.

Bad Habit #5: Tossing the Road Map

 What’s the point of speeding if you don’t know where you’re going? If you never get where you’re headed, it doesn’t matter one lick if you’re making great time. Germane to copywriting, I’m talking about passionate writers who consistently miss the point of why they’re writing or what they’re writing about.

 Exhibit A, the new writer that’s passionate about the idea they’re pitching… without a game plan for how they’re going to lay the whole thing out. Start with at least a general outline. An end and a middle, not just a beginning.

 Before you pile up research, ask yourself: What’s this product really about? Who’s this customer and where does he stand? Where do I need to take him to make the final sale? Early in my own career, I wrote without a map.

 I started and let my research pull me through, heading down this path and that. Sometimes it worked. Most of the time it did not. Then I started dissecting other pieces to see how they came together. I “lifted out” the outlines and stuck it together again, with my own research draped over the skeleton instead.

 Now I write my own outlines. Because I’ve got the basic structure imprinted on my memory already. Once you’ve got this, it helps all kinds of you make all kinds of choices about how to the whole piece will come together… just as planned.

 Bad Habit #6: Radical Revisionism

 The opposite of too little planning is, of course, over-planning. And this too, in copy, can happen to the best of them. After all, great copy has the feel of being written fast and spontaneously. Yet, we’ve also always heard that great writers revise.

 So when do you stop perfecting?

 Where do you draw the line?

I once knew a writer who spent over a month writing and re-writing his headline. Once he had it, he moved on to writing his first line. How long would THAT take him? Nobody waited to find out. The company had to fire him. See, here’s the thing. You’ve got to recognize what all the editing you’ll do is actually for.

 You’re going back to tighten, yes. To take out the clumsy phrases, to clarify the ideas, and more.

 You’re revising, too, so you can hide the seams and stiches, the girders and rivets, and all those other pieces of your construction that need to be there but remain hidden so as not to impede the flow of your prose.

 After that, though, there comes a time when you just… have to… let… it… go. Let it mail. Let if flop. Let it win. But get it out there to get tested, where all good (and bad) copy belongs.

 Polish the writing, yes. But remember that you’re nothing as a copywriter if your copy never, ever mails. Speed up that process to get it out there, in as many ways as you can.

 Bad Habit #7: Thin-skinned Amateurism

 It’s not easy, in this biz, not to take lots of things personally. You spend a lot of time alone with the things you’re writing, after all. So when a critique feels extra harsh… when a client seems less than happy… when a mailing flops… at least once in awhile, you’re going to feel personally let down.

Don’t.

It’s great to throw yourself into your work. It’s great to feel responsible for results. But the truth of the matter is, it’s also a sign of a real pro if, whenever you get knocked down, you get up brushing off the dust and ready to go all over again.

 Instead of defending yourself during a critique, ask questions that open you up for more. On flopped mailings, study the results. Do a post-mortem on the copy to find out what happened. And them move on. Maybe getting the flop out there was the best way to unveil the newer, better idea that will work the next time.

You never know until you give it a shot.

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Good News For the Creatively Challenged

Glühbirne, explodiert“If you think the way you’ve always thought, you’ll get the result you’ve always got.”  – Roy Mussel

I’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 be seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

 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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The Single Secret to Success?

mountainMy old friend Michael Masterson ran a fascinating piece of info, which he had picked up from a book by writer Tom Bay, about Harvard Business School Grads and their financial success — or lack of it. About 10 years after graduation from what’s supposed to be the echelon of rockin’ good business brilliance, here’s how the students’ status reports came in:

  • As many as 27% of them needed financial assistance.
  • A whopping 60% of them were living paycheck to paycheck.
  • A mere 10% of them were living comfortably.
  • And only 3% of them were financially independent.
  • How could that be?

    Shouldn’t a guy who paid top-dollar for Harvard wealth-making acumen get an automatic reserved place on the Forbes 400 list of worldwide wealthiest?  You would think. Yet, the reality proves different.

    So what was it that made or broke these genius grads?

    Per Michael and the book he borrowed this from, it was very simple.

    See if you can spot it in this next set of data from the same study…

    • The 27% that needed financial assistance had absolutely no goal-setting processes in their lives.
    • The 60% that were living paycheck to paycheck had only basic survival goals.
    • The 10% that were living comfortably had only general goals.
    • The 3% that were financially independent had written out their goals and the steps required to reach those goals.

    Really incredible, don’t you think?

    The difference between living on the dole or high-on-the-hog was, very simply, setting goals. And not just any goals, but actually working out the specific steps needed to achieve those goals over time.

    I mention this because, sure, it’s just as vital an insight to your copywriting career as it is to anything else you’ll try in life. But also because it gives me a chance to send you over to Michael’s blog, where you can also sign up for his e-letter, “Early To Rise.”

    You can find the original full article from Michael, right here.

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    Advice to a Young Writer

    “If I had to give young writers advice,
    I would say don’t listen to writers
    talking about writing or themselves.”

    – Lillian Hellman

    Via an old friend, a young writer sent me an email: How, he wanted to know, should he get started?

    He’s a good-hearted guy, a poet, and does some work in the non-profit, fundraising field.

    From what I could tell, he’s not really sure if copywriting is the field for him. Or moving ahead with trying to publish his poems. Or some other kind of writing.

    Is there a future for him, he wonders, in fund-raising? And how about the money thing? Is every writer destined to starve?

    (He didn’t ask that, but I know he’s thinking it.)

    Ah… to be young and full of questions. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because, let’s face it, it WAS yesterday… wasn’t it?

    Well, anyway, I sent him an answer.

    Maybe more of an answer than he wanted.

    In fact, I think I scared him. Because I haven’t heard from him since. Just the same, it’s what I would tell any writer… and hey, you’re writers… so how about it? Care to take a gander at what I said? Sure you do.

    So here you go…

    ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER

    Dear “Al,”

    I think I was telling your girlfriend, I used to be a living-room novelist. That is, I’d sit around in my apartment living room… usually in a t-shirt and boxers on Saturday mornings… with a beer and a hangover, trying to kick start various pieces I was working on.

    Either that, or I’d spent a lot of time scribbling furiously in a journal. I piled up a lot of pages. But here’s the thing…

    It’s hard to make time for writing if all you’re doing with your writing is making time.

    You don’t want to squeeze off shots into the air. You need a target. 25 poems and a publishing deadline. 3 short stories sold by the end of the year. A publisher breathing down your neck for a manuscript.

    Imagine someone will take a limb if you don’t meet the goal. Better, ask someone to take one if you don’t. That’s a metaphor, of course, about making it real.

    Point being, if you’re not on the line for your writing, you’ll probably never make it happen. Blunt but true.

    Fear to write? That goes away fast when you’re more afraid of what will happen to your paycheck — and your reputation — for not turning in the stuff you’ve promised to turn in.

    Fear of not being persuasive? I’m not kidding, one of my writing mentors used to take me over to the window and say, “Imagine you were standing out there in the park, trying to sell a watch to that guy on the bench… and I had a deer rifle trained on your head… if he didn’t buy, you didn’t survive. What would you say to him then? Because that’s how you need to make it happen on paper.”

    For me, I ultimately moved away from fiction not because I didn’t love it, but because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t working at it the way I knew I would need to if I really wanted to make it happen. And the rent check was due.

    To get my foot in the door at the publishing company where I started, I took a $15-per-day internship as an editorial writer (this was in 1991).

    I was still in grad school at the time, working during the day… going to classes at night… playing guitar with a friend in a bar after classes until closing… then getting up to do it all over again the next day.

    The bar and guitar part, I could have done without. But I had to work and wiggle my way into place for the rest of it.

    I was terrible at the start.

    That is, my writing was technically pretty good, but I didn’t know how to write sales copy. So a lot of my earlier stuff got thrown away. Either by me or the guy who first started training me.

    After about four months, I had a promo in the mail. After about six months, I had my first winning (by a narrow margin) promo, after my first year I was finally starting to get the hang of it. But I had to work at it. And the deadlines are what kept me going, when all else failed.

    That’s not to say this kind of writing is for you, by the way. It might be. But you have to know first what it involves.

    For instance, there are generally two types of advertising. What most agencies do is called “Brand Advertising” or “Awareness Advertising.”

    They put a message out there, hope it gets noticed, and then hope it leads customers back to the product (well, the good ones hope that… the bad ad professionals just want to win awards and impress clients with how cool and witty they can be).

    This can be a lucrative field if you can (a) stick out the abusive apprentice phase in which the agency tries to chew you up and spit you out, for very meager pay and (b) you don’t mind working on ads that may or may not ever sell anything.

    What I do is called “direct response” or “direct mail” advertising. Basically, junk mail. Though these days, most of what we do is really happening online.

    This is considered the ugly duckling of the ad world. Where copywriters from the big agencies are drinking martinis at the bar and wearing black turtleneck sweaters, direct-response copywriters are in the corner drinking beer and, probably, hovering over the free happy-hour slices of pizza.

    The benefit of that second kind of advertising, however, is that every single “piece” or sales letter that gets mailed has an individual reply device, coded with the date of the mailing and, usually, the name of the copywriter who wrote it.

    The same is true of sales letters online, only they’re tracked via clicks. When a customer makes an order from a letter you wrote, everybody knows it. And they pay you a royalty on it. Those royalties are part of what you negotiate when you take on the job.

    I happen to work in the newsletter publishing business. But there are lots of other businesses that depend on direct-response copy. Fund raising is one of them. Business-driving brochures and websites for non-profits is another. These both tend to be less lucrative than what I’m doing, but can be pretty profitable nonetheless.

    How would I suggest you get started?

    You mentioned just going after the jobs without the portfolio. I think that’s best, with a twist. Rather than try to fake your way in, blind, something you can always do is go after the freelance jobs with the intention of building a portfolio. And you can say that to a prospective client too.

    “Look,” you tell them, “I have experience in the non-profit field, but I’m looking to branch out. Since I’m just getting started, I can see why you’d want some kind of guarantee of getting quality copy, so how about this? Let’s settle on a base fee that’s half the normal rate. I’ll write the project and we’ll go through the draft phases. If you end up liking what we produce, you can pay me the rest of the fee. And if not, then we can cancel the project and you don’t have to pay me anything more. Does that sound fair? That way, I get to build my portfolio and you get the copy…”

    Forget the school and forget building a portfolio with no clear purpose in mind, unless you’ve got a lot of time to spare. Training is good. But getting right in there and getting started is better.

    That said, you do need some kind of education in the techniques. And there are piles of online courses. They cost money and you can’t be sure if what you’re getting is worthwhile.

    Though, I do recommend one that some friends of mine started, called the American Writers & Artists Inc. It’s mostly about copywriting but they have other courses. You can Google it. I teach some of their writing seminars from time to time. At the very least, looking over their site will start giving you some ideas about available writer’s markets.

    You can also go to a library or bookstore and look for books by Bob Bly on this and other kinds of writing careers (not “Robert Bly,” the poet, but “Bob Bly” the copywriter). If you end up going the copywriter route, let me know and I’ll send you a list of some more books that might help.

    If it’s article writing you want to do, you might get a copy of “Writer’s Market 2007.” Just be aware that it’s pretty tough to make a living only writing magazine articles. Most magazine writers can be found in the kitchen washing dishes… next to the poets 😉

    As for leaving your job… you could do that, but I recommend you don’t. Not until you’ve at least taken a look at some of the resources I mention above to decide if they’re really for you.

    And if they are, still dig into them first and make sure you like what they have to offer. Get a couple of clients or other repeating gigs, and THEN you can plunge in head first.

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    How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter

    friendly hand.pngA personal confession: I don’t just like being a copywriter. I also happen to like copywriters in general. As people, I mean. Why?

    Before you accuse me of being too kind to my own, consider.

    How many copywriters do you know that seem extra welcoming and easy-going, as well as willing to answer questions and offer advice?

    I know more than I can count.

    What’s more, speak with them once, and they’ll usually remember what you’ve talked about. Introduce somebody and they’ll be happy to shake hands. In restaurants, they almost never snarl at a waiter. And I don’t know a single one among them who would ever kick a dog.

    Every profession demands or at least cultivates certain character trains. Why should the copywriting field be any different?

    For instance, I’ve found almost across the board that those colleagues of mine who happen to have those qualities… also seem to do better over the long run as copywriters.

    Why? Simply because you need that insight into other people and what they’re thinking about to write all the best kinds of copy.

    There’s a dark side to the typical copywriter personality, of course. At least in direct response, everything we do is measured to the penny. It either works or it doesn’t. And everybody notices, either way.

    We’re hired, fired, and respected based almost entirely on performance. That can make one more than a little self-conscious. Even defensive and arrogant. In a debate, we can also be stubborn — simply because we spend so many working hours piling up proofs to back our claims.

    What else have I noticed about copywriting types?

    I’ve yet to meet a good copywriter who doesn’t have a good sense of humor, even though humor is something so rarely used — at least overtly — in direct-response sales writing.

    And not just a passion for jokes. “It’s dry,” says my wife. We’re also observant. But sometimes, observant to a fault. That is, we can get caught up in subsets of details… while even bigger trends and events blow right past us, simply because they exist outside of whatever we’re focused on at the time.

    Most copywriters I know also read widely. Some read history books, others read blockbusters, still more are sponges for trade journals, news clips, blogs, and popular magazines.

    We like movies. And music.

    In fact, we’re generally drawn to popular culture, even more than most, because it’s yet another way to soak up what our target markets are talking about.

    Strangely, a lot of copywriters I’ve talked to don’t watch much TV, even though that flies in the face of what I’ve just said. Why?

    Again, I can’t say for sure. But I can guess. TV eats up time, but gives back little in exchange. It’s also addictive. And that’s something else about copywriters. Like a lot of other writers, we can have slightly addictive or compulsive personalities.

    Not necessarily the usual compulsions, either.

    For instance, a lot of the copywriters I know are collectors. Of everything from puns and trivia… to chateaus and high-priced automobiles. For me, there was awhile there that I couldn’t help buying cheap used guitars. Until I acquired a few nice ones.

    Which is another thing… I don’t know why, but easily 8 out of every 10 copywriters I know seem to play an instrument. And more often than not, that instrument is the guitar.

    Not all of us are good, mind you. But we at least appreciate music. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat past 2 am, muddling my way through Dylan and Stones covers with fellow writers.

    Copywriters are also a curious bunch.

    By that I mean, we tend to be especially inquisitive. About everything. Even those things we’ll never write about.

    David Ogilvy once said that curiosity was the key trait he looked for when hiring a writer. Be warned, if you don’t like asking questions, this might not be the field for you.

    We’re storytellers. In print or conversation, copywriters love to default to the story form. Sometimes, more often than our listeners can stand.

    The same goes for analogies.

    We make — or should I say test — a lot of them. Analogy lies close to the core of creativity. A good analogy can make a complex idea sound simple. It can make an unfamiliar idea feel like an old friend. That doesn’t mean we always get the analogy right. But you can bet that when we don’t, we’ll try again.

    A handful of the copywriters I know are doodlers or artists, yours truly included. That’s not a universal trait in this industry. But common enough to make it worth mentioning.

    I think it’s because copywriting demands an especially strong mix of both left and right brain thinking. During the research mode, you’re all strategy and calculation. But then you need to jump to the other side of the divide, where your passion for the rhythm of word-craft resides.

    Not everybody can do both.

    Copywriters can be extroverted, but most that I know are not. On the other hand, we rarely shy away from a debate. We’ve got deeply felt opinions on everything, including a few things we don’t know much about… yet.

    This list could go on.

    But you more than get the picture.

    There’s plenty about this trade that can be taught. But even the best techniques and tools aren’t worth much unless you’ve got the right kind of knack for this career in the first place. I’d be cheating you if I told you otherwise.

    But let’s say you’re not at all like the person I’ve just described, but you still want to find your footing in this profession? No worries. Just like everything else, there’s always the option to simply do your thing and let the market decide.

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    The Marketing Test That Saved the World

    needleIn 1977 in the Horn of Africa…  a marketing test saved the world. But let’s back up just a second. What’s “testing” exactly? If you’re a working pro, you know already. To test is the soul of good marketing.

     You test different versions of headlines to see which pulls the biggest response. You test the price, you test the mailing lists, you test the guarantee. You even test the size of your envelope, the color of your paper, or the format of your landing page.

     Without testing, you’ve put all your eggs in one basket. With testing, you can blow open windows, doors, and whole vistas of opportunity. Keep that message in mind as we roll back to Africa, deep in the rough and raw territories of Somalia and Ethiopia, in the summer of 1977.

    Here’s the story…

     A Microbe Hunt That Almost Hit a Dead End

    Dr. Greene was just one of many top scientists on the ground that year, with the World Health Organization (WHO). For 20 years straight, the WHO had waged a war against smallpox, one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

    You might not know diddly about the history of smallpox. And consider yourself lucky. Because this little, invisible, pernicious virus had been killing indiscriminately for at least 3,000 years.

     Egyptian mummies have shown signs of infection. Recorded cases appear in China and India, going back to 1,500 B.C. Smallpox helped wipe out the Aztecs and the Incas. And killed 400,000 Europeans per year, for most of the 1700s.

     Countless faceless millions fell.

    Along with at least five European monarchs, including King Louis XV and most of his family. 

    Queen Elizabeth got lucky. She had it and survived. So did Stalin, Lincoln, and George Washington along with Mozart and Beethoven.

     Still, even during the 20th century, the disease killed up to 500 million. Even 150 years after Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine, in 1950, over the virus still infected 50 million.

     As late as 1967, 15 million people had it. Of those, another 2 million died. But by 1977, that changed.

     The WHO had the disease cornered. Only the territory on Africa’s tip still hosted outbreaks. Only a handful of towns and villages had yet to get vaccinated.

     But that’s when the doctors hit a roadblock.

     Local wars, terrible roads, and famine already made the job of spreading the vaccine tough. But paranoid local leaders made it impossible. They distrusted the West. They didn’t have any knowledge of or faith in the WHO. And none of the local leaders, more militant than political, wanted these strange doctors anywhere near their people.

    Especially not doctors armed with needles.

     Tensions ran so high, at one point it looked like the WHO team was about to get tossed out on their tails… with their medical kits following close behind.

     Then one of the doctors got an idea.

    The Test That Changed Everything 

    In every village, the WHO team had gone straight to the political junta… the men who sat on the council and held the leadership… and pitched the political and scientific advantages of allowing the vaccinations.

     It didn’t take. But then one of the doctors decided that if taking the case to the men in charge wouldn’t work… what about the women?

    He cornered the top wife (the leader had more than one) and talked to her about the children… about personal loss in the village… and about medical miracles, already happening elsewhere.

     The next morning, the doctors got a message.

     The village council wanted to hear more about the vaccine. Within days, the doctors vaccination centers set up and a line of villagers going out the door.

     Within a week, the local leaders had sent messages to other nearby towns, endorsing the treatment.

     Over and over, the doctors used the technique in other villages across the Horn of Africa.

     On October 26, 1977, a cook from Somalia named Ali Maow Maalin checked into a small hospital with the last known naturally occurring case of smallpox.

     It’s the first and last time we’ve eradicated a human disease. And one of the greatest feats of modern medicine.

     Could it have happened without the “test” of both audience and message? Probably not.

     I worked briefly for Dr. Greene in 1990, doing some transcription work. He showed me snapshots he’d taken during the trip. And told me this story. It was an afterthought, he said. A last ditch effort and an almost-missed opportunity. Like many tests in our business, too — almost missed opportunities.

    Sound familiar? Let’s hope not.

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    Ego-Butter: How to Give a Copy Critique

    redink.png I’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I crave them, no matter how harsh, because that’s what makes the writing better.

    I’ve also given a few copy critiques, too. And I’ve discovered that when I’m on the handler side of the red pen, there’s one essential element to making those recommendations more effective: “ego butter.”

    Let me back up.

    Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

    Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

    After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

    “Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved. Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business.

    This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. And with that, he also lost a repeat client. It was really too bad, because I distinctly remember plenty of high-paying work to go around. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

    But here’s the thing…

    While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

    See, while not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been, there are reasons why — if you’re on the critiquing side of a creative exchange — you might want to take the writer’s position into consideration.

    First, remember we’re only human. Remember too that good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. They spend a lot of time with it too.

    By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

    Again, if you’re a great writer and a smart one, you’ll take even the sharpest comments with a smile. But on the flip side, if you really want results from a hired gun copywriter, there’s a step you could take to get much better results. And it won’t cost you a dime.

    Very simply, start with the positive. Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately.

    Example: “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

    Okay, of course I’m kidding here.

    The point is, if the copy is salvageable, there’s something in it you like. Don’t save it for last. Talk about it up front. You can be honest about the stuff you don’t like to. But lower the resistance to your suggestions first.

    Is that pandering? Perhaps.

    But ask yourself, in any situation alike this, what’s the goal of the critique? Is it your aim only To toughen the writer’s skin… or are you out to get the best possible copy you can get?

    The latter, I’d assume.

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    Brainstorming By the Rules

    brainbolt.pngAlex Osborn, founder of a super-successful New York ad Agency and of the Creative Education Foundation, came up with a list of brainstorming “rules” in 1963:

    No judgment in early stages: Collect as many ideas as possible without imposing criticism.

    Encourage wild or stupid ideas: Don’t refuse to write anything on the board. You never know where it might lead.

    Forbid discussion: This may seem counter-intuitive to old-school thinkers. What’s a meeting without talk, after all? But at the start of brainstorming, analysis is death. Wait until you have your long list of ideas, first.

    Ban cynics: Early criticism of ideas guarantees you fewer good ideas overall. Anyone who can’t accommodate randomness of thought shouldn’t be there.

    Make the process visible: Be sure to record the ideas as the come on a flipchart or board. They must be seen by the group to be useful.

    Impose time limits: The pressure of the clock helps ideas to flow more quickly, spontaneously. 30 minutes is good.

    These rules aren’t easy to keep. But they worked for Osborn and
    thousands of others, from copywriters to politicians to engineers. Systems
    work if you give ‘em a chance.

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    Forgetful? Blame Happiness

    happysmileAccording to a recent study published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” the more positive your mood, the more likely you are to forget important details.

    “People in a positive mood such as happiness were shown under experimental conditions to have relatively unreliable memories, and show poorer judgment and critical thinking skills… our recollection of past events are more likely to be contaminated by irrelevant information when we are in a positive mood. A positive mood is likely to trigger less careful thinking strategies.”

    But wait, there’s more.

    The study also found that subjects in a NEGATIVE mood were far more focused in their critical thinking and communication skills. Here’s where you can tie that insight into copywriting.

    See, it’s common legend that benefits sell best. Yet in some camps, there are those who claime fear-based or problem-solution based copy will consistently pull BETTER.

    Well if that’s true, maybe this is why…

    Put the customer in positive territory (like all those hilariously forgettable ads aired during the Super Bowl)… and you risk not making an imprint with little key items like the name of your product or the special offer you hope to make.

    But dip a promotional toe in negative territory, and you help the prospect stir his own fire, so to speak. The adrenaline surges, the senses come alive, and the powers of memory for detail awaken.

    Which, for a good product with a good offer, is exactly what you want to do.

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