Category: Confidence

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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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. 

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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?

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