Category: Confidence

How To Get Started

startinglineI got a note from a reader who aspires to a copywriting career and wanted to know how best to get started. You can imagine, I get that question a lot. Here was my reply:

1) Keep on reading the Copywriter’s Roundtable!

2) Get some books on copywriting and study them. See the attached past issues.

3) Get on the mailing list of companies you think you could write for (your areas of interest and expertise).

4) Study those sales letters they send you too (the ones that make you want to buy, copy out by hand 3X).

5) Contact one of the companies (the marketing director or product manager, if you can find them).

6) Offer to write a sales letter “on spec” — which means they pay you if they like it.

7) Keep doing that until you have a portfolio of letters and some regular clients who hire you often.

Starting local is a good idea. Or can be. Businesses use sales letters and brochures to sell to other businesses (this is “B2B” copywriting) and then there’s the business to consumer market (“B2C”).

There’s also non-profit, but that can be a slow and less lucrative beginning. Better to get into that later, after honing your skills.

Look to the field you’re already working in, too. If you’ve been focusing on something in particular, you’re no doubt pretty knowledgeable about the products and the customers you service. Maybe enough that you could write marketing copy for that niche..

Of course, companies with information products, software companies, computer equipment companies, publishing companies… can all be good places to start.

You want to use each job as leverage to get your next assignment. And try to make each assignment that you get a little larger and more ambitious than the last.  

The more knowledge you get, start offering to give talks for companies and communities on how to use good copy to increase sales… and let people know, after the speech, that you’re a provider of those services.

 Find a good graphic designer (with direct mail experience, preferably) and form a “team” where you each try to bring in the other as part of new jobs. 

Again, you’re sure to have some hurdles in the beginning. And you need to expect to take at least six months to a year… maybe even just a little longer… to get good enough at this and established enough to make it a real career.

 Like anything worthwhile, you WILL need to put in the hours and be dedicated. But you can certainly learn how to do this, if you put in the time. 

More

Why Only Some People Are “Creative”

homer.jpg On D-Day, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops pulled off the largest invasion in history, forcing their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Strategy was key. So was equipment.

But the real mettle of the moment came from the soldiers staging the invasion.

This included, naturally, pilots who had to navigate a sky thick with German anti-aircraft fire.

Long before the invasion, military strategists knew this would happen. They also knew they needed top-notch fliers.

At first, they tried using intelligence tests to pick candidates. But intelligence alone as an indicator turned out to be useless in determining which pilots would be inventive enough, in a tight situation, not just to save themselves but also to save their airplanes.

Creative cognitive ability, it turned out, was only partly connected with smarts. Around the same time, a psychologist from the University of Southern California identified the crucial difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the kind we’re used to on I.Q. tests and in math and science textbooks. It’s a way to find the single, logical, and usually most orthodox solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more widely cast. It searches many routes, finds many solutions, and then might settle on one or the other depending on what the situation dictates.

The best fighter pilots, not so surprisingly, were those more adept at divergent thinking. When the context required, creative survival tactics prevailed.

So if it’s not IQ that matters, what is it that makes one person a convergent thinker and another person a divergent or more creative thinker?

Another study reported in Scientific American relates the story of a 43-year old art teacher in San Francisco. For most of her life, she had been a painter. She even took a job teaching art later in life.

But suddenly, she could no longer do her job. Lesson plans confused her. She couldn’t grade projects. When she could no longer remember her student’s names, she retired and took her troubles to a neurologist.

He did a brain scan and found dementia damage to her frontal and temporal lobes, mostly on the left side of her brain.

The teacher gradually lost some speech abilities. She also lost some control of herself in social situations, both of which are common with this kind of neuron damage.

But something else happened.

As her inhibitions in public waned, her creative powers grew. Her art grew more prolific, emotional, and expressive.

The neurologist dug deep into research on the disorder and found others who also had new bursts of creativity after the damage had set in, even in some who had never before been artistic or considered themselves “creative” before.

What’s this mean? No, I’m not saying that a little brain damage is something to hope for if you want to up your creativity.

But I’m sure you heard, 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.

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.

More

Time-Tested Fridge Wisdom

old man.png It’s commonly said that the Greeks talked about two kinds of knowledge. One you gain from study, the other from experience.

But there’s a third kind, a sort of wisdom corollary, they didn’t have access to but you do: refrigerator wisdom.

Yep, i’m talking about the kind you pick up somewhere between the other two, then print out and slap on your fridge with a magnet.

The following fits in that category.

No, it’s got nothing to do with copywriting. But it’s good advice for copywriters and everybody else, just the same. Besides, it’s springtime dammit. Just the right season for this kind of message.

How so?

I picked this up the following from an email sent by the good folks over at www.inspiringlife.co.uk. It’s reportedly a note from an 85-year old man about to leave this world behind.

Here’s what he said:

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I wouldn’t be so perfect. I would relax more. I’d limber up. I’d be sillier than I’ve been on this trip. In fact, I know very few things that I would take seriously.

“I’d be crazier. I’d be less hygienic. I’d take more chances, I’d take more trips, I’d climb more mountains. I’d swim more rivers, I’d go to more places I’ve never been to. I’d eat more ice cream and fewer beans. I’d have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary ones.

“You see, I was one of those people who lived prophylactically and sensibly hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of those moments – moment by moment by moment.

“I’ve been one of those people who never went anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had it to do all over again, I’d travel lighter next time.

“If I had it to do all over again, I’d start out earlier in the spring and stay away later in the fall.

“I’d ride more merry-go-rounds, I’d watch more sunrises, I’d play with more children… if I had my life to live all over again.”

Sounds like a good idea, don’t you think?

If you’re sub-85 and reading this, I suggest you put down the copywriting stuff for just a moment, close your laptop, and take some of his advice.

Because God knows, if not now… when?

More

The World’s Toughest Girl Scout

girlscoutJennifer Sharpe can kick your butt.

Jennifer, in case you haven’t heard, is a 15-year-old Girl Scout from Dearborn, Michigan. And Girl Scouts, as I’m sure you know, have sold cookies – from the chocolate mint wafers to those puffy marshmallow things – for decades.

Maybe you’ve bought a box or 10 yourself over the years.

If you live in Dearborn, however, there’s a chance you’ve bought even more than that – especially with Jennifer working the market.

See, Jennifer sold not just 10 or 100 or even 1,000 boxes of cookies, but a stunning 17,328 boxes. How did she do it?

Apparently, just by showing up.

According to MSNBC – and her mother – Jennifer was quiet and shy about talking to customers. But she set up on a street corner and just kept at it. Before long, she had her pitch down… her confidence up… and sales that would make a career pitchman green with envy.

And here’s my point…

So many of the great marketers and copywriters I’ve known over the last 15 or so years didn’t hone their chops in business school… or with the help of literary aspirations. Rather, they got good and then better at what they do by… doing it. Anyone who has ever sold anything door to door, for instance, is often a natural at copywriting.

There’s just something about selling face-to-face that polishes you and makes you focus on the person you’re selling to. The hesitation you feel when you’re just getting started is more often your own than it is the customer’s.

Before I got into copywriting, I wanted to write novels. Maybe I still will, someday. But, honestly, that didn’t do much for my copywriting. Much less, actually, than the time I spent during college summers working as a sales clerk in a hardware store and then as the owner-operator of my own house-painting business.

What if you have no sales background to draw from? Here’s one suggestion: Call your alma mater or a local charity and offer to get on the phones for the next donation drive. You’ll get to face up to the selling challenge – asking for donations – in a no-risk environment, where you can do some good without worrying about getting canned if you can’t master it.

Or, here’s another idea. Call the Girl Scouts and offer to sell some of their cookies. (I’m just kidding, of course. But if you do… I’ll take a box of the Thin Mints.)

More

Can Music Make You More Creative?

guitar I’ve noted often how strange it was that so many copywriters play instruments. And wondered, too, whether listening to music… or even playing it… makes for better writers.

Two new studies suggest that might be exactly the case. Turns out, according to Georgetown University researchers, that not only does their research say that music and language — word use — use the same areas of memory, but that we also unconsciously learn the “rules” of what sounds good in both music and language, in the same way.

So if you have a good ear for melodies, you might also have a good ear for what sounds good in the printed or spoken word.

Research from the New York Academy of Sciences takes it even further: playing music, they say, can make you smarter. It can also beef up your immune system, improve your memory, and keep you sane, for lack of a better way to put it.

How they explain why so many musicians seem to go nuts or die young, I don’t know.

But what their research shows is actual increased grey matter in the part of the brain that manages hearing, which gets more pronounced in people who play music often.

Even listening to music –- and not just Mozart –- can give you some of the same benefits. But actually playing it seems to be even better. The recitation involved just seems to help your brain’s neural network get “organized” so it can run more efficiently.

Go figure, eh?

More

CR #485: Which Promises Work Best?

pinkies.pngSponsor: How to Start Selling Yourself as a Copy Expert

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

“That’s right – it filets, it chops, it dices and
slices. It never stops. It lasts a lifetime, mows
your lawn, and it picks up the kids from school.
It plays a mean rhythm. It makes excuses for
lipstick on your collar. And it’s only a dollar,
only a dollar, only a dollar.”

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

This week, I share the raw copy from a draft of a version of a sketch of a preliminary manifestation of a chapter that’s supposed to go in the book I mentioned.

Did I mention? It’s raw.

And actually, I only have space here to include an excerpt. But I thought you might like it just the same (if not, your money back… how can you beat that, right?)

So without further ado…

“Cash if You Die, Cash If You Don’t”

According to famous copywriter Drayton Bird, that subhead I just gave you above was once one of the most successful headlines in the insurance industry.

Why?

“Your safest opening,” says Drayton, who has written copy since 1957 and for clients like Ford, American Express, and Proctor & Gamble, “… is your prime benefit and offer… an instant statement, instantly comprehensible.”

About 100 years ago, copy legend John Kennedy told his boss pretty much the same thing. And then wrote it up in a book called Reason Why Advertising, “To strike the responsive chord with the reader… is to multiply the selling power of every reason-why given…”

In today’s terms, a promise your reader cares about is the single best way to grab him by the lapels. To get him to hear your message out, he first needs a reason to listen.

In the 1960s and ’70s, adman David Ogilvy used a list he’d written, called “How to Create Advertising That Sells,” to bring in new clients for his agency. What did he say inside?

“It pays to promise a benefit which is unique and competitive, and the product must deliver the benefit your promise. Most advertising promises nothing. It is doomed to fail in the marketplace… Headlines that promise to benefit sell more than those that don’t.”

Then you’ve got our friend and fellow copywriter, Clayton Makepeace, who recently told readers of his Total Package blog:

“The only reason any rational human being ever purchases anything is to derive a benefit from it! That means …any scrap of sales copy that fails to clearly, dramatically, emphatically, credibly and repeatedly present the benefits a product will deliver is destined to fail miserably.”

Or as the writer Samuel Johnson put it, when he was writing about the sales game the way it was back in the 1700s, “Promise, much promise, is the soul of advertisement.”

We definitely agree.

You won’t find many ads of any kind that don’t include at least one healthy promise, either implied or stated outright.

So why create a whole lead category just to focus on promises?

When “Promise Leads” Still Work

Because there have been times — and there are still times– when a simple, direct promise without any other touches or twists will be your best foot forward.

So, for instance, where an Offer Lead like those you just saw might read…

A HOLLYWOOD SMILE IN 3 DAYS
…OR YOUR MONEY BACK

A Promise Lead might avoid mentioning the offer up front, so it can target readers who are almost ready to be sold but not quite. This version takes away any up-front focus on the deal and puts the spotlight solely on the big claim:

A HOLLYWOOD SMILE IN 3 DAYS

Likewise, Promise Leads are more direct than the other leads you’ll read about here, in that they each get progressively less direct.

You would think that as target audiences become more aware of their options, thanks to the always-on Information Age, more direct Promise Leads would be all over the place.

After all, goes the theory, more “aware” demands more “direct,” right? Adn yet, it’s also getting progressively harder to make pure Promise Leads work. Why’s that?

We’ll look at those reasons next week.

For now, know there are times when a direct claim and little else is exactly what you need.

For instance, the Promise Lead works especially well for targeting “mostly aware” prospects that are almost ready to buy and are mostly clear on what they’re looking for.

What to Promise and When

At the Ogilvy Center for Research in San Francisco, they ran a test. They wanted to see if people bought more from TV commercials they “liked.”

It turns out, they did.

But before you start studying million-dollar Superbowl commercials, hang on. Because it turns out how the people asked defined “liked.”

It turns out they remembered and ranked ads higher not if they were clever or funny, but if they were relevant to something important to the prospect.

“Advertising works best,” wrote Drayton Bird in Commonsense Marketing, “if you promise people something they want, not — as many imagine — — if you are clever, original or shocking.”

Of course, picking the right promise is fundamental. Because it’s your statement of your intention. In exchange for your customers’ money, what will you do for them?

And we know that ads promise all kinds of things.

To make you thin or bulk you up, to make you stronger, younger, fitter, and faster. To teach you to do something you’ve always wanted to do or make something easier than you ever thought it could be.

They can promise to make you more attractive. They can promise to make you rich. Or to save you money. They can promise you a better ride, a bigger house, more beautiful skin and a beautiful dress, a smart looking suit, or a happy marriage.

They can promise to look out for your interests, if it’s an ad for someone begging your vote. They can promise to look out for someone else that you care about, in the way of a charity for a special cause.

Here’s just a sample of some classic promise-making headlines…

** How to Build A Memory In 4 Short Weeks — So Powerful It Is Beyond Your Wildest Dreams Today

** Change Your Life Next Week

** Turns up your “Digestive Furnace and burns flab right out of your body

But more often, even the straight promise has more behind it than just what it claims.

Beyond what’s written, Promise Leads often satisfy some underlying emotion.

Respect, love, friendship. Prestige among your peers. Confidence and freedom from worry. Inclusion. Safety and security. A feeling of association and even similarity with people you admire and respect.

Even more specifically, a Promise Lead is not just what it can do for the customer, but what it promises to make the customer feel about himself. And maybe most of all, how it will let him be seen be others.

Those factors are what make your claims matter to your readers.

That’s the key.

Especially when your most direct promise is your default lead. Because you have only those first few microseconds for the prospect to decide whether or not to give you any of his most precious commodity — time.

***************************************************
Opportunity:
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

Breakthrough Thinking in Five Simple Steps

“Ideas are like rabbits,” John Steinbeck once said, “You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.”  Sure, but how do you get those first couple of ideas? 

One way is to take a look at a very short book called — appropriately enough —  “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” the classic 48-pager from James Webb Young.  It was first published in 1965. But it’s so simple a process, it can apply in any age. Yep, even today.

Now, before we get started, a warning: Says Young, if you don’t think you’re an “idea person”… well… according to Young… there’s a possibility you might be right. Not everybody is, claims Young. And to make the case, he cites the great Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto.

 You may have heard of Pareto. He’s the one who came up with the famous “80-20” principle. He’s also the one who suggested you could divvy up the world into two kinds of people — the “rentier” and the “speculator.”

 The “rentier” (Pareto wrote in the then international language of French) is the kind of person that sits around, waiting for things to happen.

 Ask him “Do you ever wonder what it’s all about? I mean life, the universe, and everything?” And he’ll reply, “Um, well… no, not really.” Then he’ll reach for the beer pretzels.

For this poor guy, facts are facts. Period. And please pass the onion dip. He sees no web, no great ethereal connection between things. Metaphors and analogies? There are antibiotics you can take for that.

 Then you’ve got the “speculator.” And this is who you want to be. Because it’s the speculator that’s preoccupied with combinations, connections, and details. That’s an ideal personality for an “idea person”… so naturally, if this describes you, you’re in luck.

 Why? Because, in large part, that’s what “idea-making” ends up being — the creative connection of found elements. New ways to combine old things. And this, too, is what James W. Young’s method will help you do. As Young warns us, it’s nothing new. Rather it’s instinctive. So, like all sensible things, this method I’m about to describe sounds almost primal and obvious.

Step One: Gather your raw material.

 Yes… very obvious, you’ll say.  Yet, it’s a common misconception that Big Ideas are born within. However,  we’re sensory creatures. All our best ideas start on the outside. Case in point: when someone has writer’s block — an all-too-common malady — what’s the surefire cure? To go out and read something. Or listen. Or talk to someone on the “inside” of whatever you’re writing about.

The bottom line is to pack in new information from any relevant source you can find. 

For instance, I used to read the front page of the Wall Street Journal every morning. I had to stop, because invariably I’d lose the next half hour desperately scribbling out a new idea for a short story or “perfect screenplay” that I just didn’t have time to write.

 So… you find yourself short on brilliance? Then go out and get yourself some. Load up on insights relevant to the breakthrough you’re hoping to produce. As many books and clippings and observations as you can carry.

Of course, you need to start with raw material that’s closest to the problem you’re trying to solve. Just as I described above. But then you also need what Young calls “general” information. And this is harder to come by, because it requires a lifetime habit of insatiable curiosity — a mark, by the way, of every brilliant copywriter I know. 

Read books endlessly, like the smoker who lights his next cigarette with the last one. Get into conversations with unfamiliar people. Ask questions and then shut up and listen. Don’t limit the subject matter. Just get interested in life. Or give up writing copy, because it probably isn’t the career for you.

 Step Two: Study the puzzle.

 If you’ve piled up enough raw material, you’ve got a mound. A mess. A mountain that needs to be conquered. Ideally, you’re already starting to gather notes from your resources while you’re still in the first stage. Like a packrat, you’re jotting things down. On napkins. On your hand. On the back of your tie.

 Here’s an even better option: Young suggests, as I have countless times, index cards. They still work best, even in the wonderful world of word processing.

 Whatever it is, you need to know that your system of note-taking will (a) be endlessly expandable and (b) easily sorted later, after you get that feeling you’ve gathered all the facts you need (which happens about the time the resources start repeating themselves).

 Now you need another stack of blank index cards or an empty notebook where you can start taking notes on your notes. Sift through them. Spread them out on the floor. Organize them. And drop in cards filled with connecting ideas where they come. You’ll be shocked, if you do this right, how things start to gel together.

 This, by the way, is the part of the process where you’re unlikely to hear the doorbell ringing and where a phone call from your best friend feels like an act of violence.

 But be warned. To get the most out of this stage, you have to do it until you drop. Or at least, until the point you feel like you’ve seen each and every factoid and insight you’ve gathered a half-dozen times or more.

 Step Three: Step back.

 It’s in this phase where you get to comb your hair, brush your teeth, and go somewhere else.

 Just get out of the office or the house and do something other than what you were doing. Distract yourself, preferably with something that will stir up your imagination or emotions in some other way.

 Because it’s in this stage that you get to digest what you’ve taken in. As you take your conscious mind elsewhere, your unconscious mind gurgles with gastric juices (so to speak), churning through the details.

 Step Four: Have the idea.

 I’d like to say this is the easy part.

 You’ve done all the tedious preliminary work.

 Now you get the reward — the idea appears. Pop. Just like that. One minute you didn’t know what to say or do. And the next, you’ve got a 150 watt halogen hovering over your head.

 Isn’t that nice?

 If you’ve ever struggled with a problem before bed and woke up with the answer… if you’ve ever suddenly had a flash of brilliance while strolling, driving, or in the shower… this is what’s happening.

 However, where you go from here is anything but easy.

Typically, the idea will first arrive — if you did everything else right — when you least expect it. For instance, it’s just not easy to find something to write with in the shower. Worse, even if you find a way to scribble out your stream of genius with soap on the bathroom mirror, you’ll quickly realize that just having the idea — even jotting it down — isn’t the end of your efforts.

 Step Five: Wake up.

 You’ll feel great — even inspired — when that idea first shows up. But we all know that it’s not long after the cork pops when champagne starts to lose its fizz.  

See, your new idea doesn’t just need to be captured. It needs to be tamed. Polished. Beaten into submission or whatever other metaphor floats your dinghy. And — here’s the really hard-to-swallow fact — this is where your skills, alas, will come into play.

Because it’s here, in the execution rather than the mere inspiration, where you’re going to set yourself apart from the  rest of the pack. Think of it this way.

Some cave guy (or gal) once had an idea for a thing called a ‘wheel.’ We must remember to send him (or her) some flowers. But while we’re at it, let’s not forget to thank the fella (for it was one, Charles Goodyear) who thought up vulcanized rubber in 1844… or Robert Thomson who came up with the first inflatable tire in 1845… and John Dunlop, who re-invented it for his son’s tricycle in 1847.

Radials and white walls. All-season treads. Axles and four-wheel drive. They all took a great idea and made it greater… by working it over, massaging it, pushing forward and making mistakes, and plenty more. It was the sweat equity that made the real difference.

Here’s the good news: as you polish and refine, you’ll also discover more ideas. All worth re-working too. Your pool of genius will expand. And pretty soon, you’re not just the guy (or gal) who had that one great idea a long time ago… you’re the one who has lots of great ideas. And even better, you’ll have a reputation as one of the rare few who sees those ideas through.

And isn’t that who you wanted to be all along?

More

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.

More

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?

More

Nine Rules For Writing Blogs & Ezines

I’ve written the “Copywriters Roundtable” ezine for many years. I’ve worked with many others who write ezines. And I’ve received ezines galore. What have I learned that’s worth sharing with you?

A lot, I hope.

But there a few things leaped immediately to mind when I first sat down and thought about it. And since it’s  pretty tough these days to find anyone who doesn’t write a blog or an ezine, I figured you might like if shared those ideas with you.

Ready? Here we go…

1) Always remember that your reader is much smarter than you think. Even while educating or informing, never talk down. And never think the readers won’t notice when you haven’t done your homework.

2) Your readers prefer stories to lists of facts. “Everyone likes a story,” said novelist E.M. Forster. We’ve seen this elsewhere in this course, too. You’ll find it a lot easier to hold onto human interest by putting plenty of human interest angles into the articles you’ll write (e.g. marketer Joe Vitale recently ran an article, “How Mark Twain Would Write Online.” He could have just listed points. But instead, he gave his lesson a face we could all identify with.)

3) Your reader respects – and expects – conviction. This point can’t be emphasized enough. The email relationship demands you to take a position. Readers don’t want more information. They can get that anywhere. Instead, they want someone to make a judgment about information so they can know what’s essential and what is not.

4) Your reader expects profundity. Remember what we said about the value of complexity. The deeper you can take your reader, the more you can expand his mind, the greater your editor-reader relationship will be, the more he’ll recommend your ezine to friends (right?). And the longer he’ll stay active on your mailing list (yes?).

5) Trust encourages action. Relationships like the ones we’ve been talking about are built on trust. Earlier in this course we talked about the value of “authenticity.” This is one of those places where it comes into play. The more the reader trusts you, the more genuinely he regards your message, and the more likely he is to take the action you recommend. Including acting on the offers in the promos you attach to the ezine (only if you want to of course… and you DO want to, don’t you?)

6) Your reader expects imperfection. There’s a reason we laugh hardest at comedians who aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. Showing an occasional weakness actually confirms your strength of character. And gives your writing a personal, human appeal.

7) Your reader expects emotion. Getting personal means getting emotional. But be careful in two ways. First realize that even zealots can only go so far. Be passionate about your position, but not crazed. Second, good writers express the full range of emotions over time (fear, greed, anger, desire, vanity, etc.) You can’t fake this. But don’t suppress it in your ezine copy either.

8) Give both need-to-know AND want-to-know information. No question, the most valuable ezines educate readers. But remember your ezine subscribers will want to be entertained as much as they’ll want to be informed. Think of it like the difference between the college professor who bores listeners at a cocktail party… and the master storyteller who builds a circle of guests around him, all leaning in to hear more.

9) Reinforce the old, introduce the new. When you’re writing an ezine, it’s true you’re almost always “preaching to the choir.” Which means a lot of your ezine copy will appeal to the suspicions, opinions, and principles you and your readers already share. But just as much, you have to make sure you introduce, amplify, and illuminate a new direction for your readers to take.

This last rule is especially important.

By repeating core ideas, you reinforce your reader’s good feelings about your ezine. By saying something new, however, you also provide understanding. And for that your reader will be eternally (one hopes) grateful.

More