Category: Copywriting Secrets

Trade secrets of the most successful copywriters, exposed.

Five Punctuation “Mistakes” You Should Make

punctuation

Even after 16 years working as a writer, I still make grammar and punctuation mistakes. But at least some of my “mistakes,” I make on purpose. If you want to write powerful sales copy, I suggest you start making them too. Mistakes, that is.

How so? Consider…

1) The Mercurial M-Dash – You know the “m-dash.” It’s the long hyphen-looking thing that helps set apart — and even frame — a key thought in the middle of a sentence. (See what I just did there?) Copywriters use them all the time — maybe too often — to really emphasize a point they don’t want the reader to zip past. (Would you look at that? I did it again.)

 2) The Parenthetical Pull of Parentheses – Good writers frown on overusing, even abuse, of parenthetical remarks (you know the type). And really, parentheses are not used much in sales copy either. 

But sometimes (for instance, after a headline or in a sentence where you need a kind of “wink, nudge” aside to the reader) it doesn’t hurt to throw a comment inside parentheses. Done right, you can use this device to highlight the conversational, even conspiratorial tone sales copy sometimes needs to take.

 3) Culling Interest With Quotation Marks – We’re not supposed to use quotation marks unless we’re actually quoting someone who said something. Like, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright. He once said, “I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters.” Sharp fella.

 Still, quotation marks have a strange power over readers. Even when they’re not surrounding a “real” quote, they have a way of pulling readers in. Copywriters sometimes use that phenomenon by putting headlines and subheads in quotes. Or even words they just want to “emphasize.”

 (Go ahead… this is where you should make that little, cynical “I’m putting quotation marks here” sign with your fingers… ala Austin Powers and Dr. Evil.)

 4) The Evocative Ellipsis – The ellipsis, you’ve seen… haven’t you?  It’s that… how do I explain this… series of little… you know… dots that copywriters use so often in their copy. The ellipsis is supposed to just indicate missing text in a phrase. Especially where that text can be implied without being stated.

But we use it… and abuse it… in so many more ways.  Why?

Because it helps approximate the halting way many people speak. We let ideas trail off… we dance around a notion… we come back to the beginning. And we use these things, the “…,” to help us do so more fluidly and gently then you might if you were a whip-cracking grammarian. Try it. Ellipses are like potato chips. Once you start using them, you’ll find it hard to stop.

 5) The Ambitious Apostrophe – Contractions aren’t just for the delivery room anymore, my friend. Where a formal writer might frown at casual, contracted terms like “I’d”… “isn’t”… even “ain’t”… they also go a long way toward making your sales copy more casual and conversational.

Naturally, you don’t want to use these recklessly. They’re garnish on a piece of prose, spice to make it interesting. And a little something to give all those over-zealous copyeditors something to sweat about.

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Seven Ways to Say Thanks…

Screen Shot 2011-11-22 at 3.05.52 PM.png ‘Tis the season of giving — giving “thanks” that is, at least in the U.S.

Yes, it’s Thanksgiving week, where my American compatriots are prepping to stuff turkeys, stuff themselves, and welcome family and friends into their homes.

And while we’re at it, why not take the opportunity to talk about another kind of ‘thanks giving’ in this week’s CR — the thanks you should be giving your customers for, well, being your customers.

Why thank customers?

The short answer, of course, is “why not?” Unless you were raised by wolverines, it’s a common courtesy you’re proud to offer… am I right?

The longer answer is that it’s practically money in the bank for future business, because customers that feel warm and fuzzy come back tenfold for more (give or take a fold or three).

So, in the spirit of the season, let me give you at 14 ways to make your customers feel appreciated.

We’ll start with these seven…

1) SEND A NOTE – I once dated a girl who sent thank you cards almost as automatically as breathing. I swear to you, the girl would pen notes of gratitude in the car, as we pulled out of driveways from dinner parties. “Because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” she would explain.

Why not do the same for your customers? Not in the perfunctory, here’s an auto-reply “thanks for your order” email (which you should also probably do) but an actual note that gets mailed as a stand alone message. “I just wanted to thank you personally,” says the owner of the business in the card, “for giving our [specific product name] a try. Welcome on board and please enjoy.”

2) MAKE IT A B-DAY CARD – There’s a story I’ve heard floating around, about the world’s best car salesman. Seems he took the time to note the birthdays of all his past customers. And every year, he would send a birthday card.

No cloaked sales messages, no ‘special inventory’ hype… just the birthday greeting. And he personally signed each card.

Result? He had a referral business like you wouldn’t believe. Not to mention customers that came back to him over and over again when it was time to buy a newer model.

These days, I get lots of automated B-Day wishes from online sources. And admittedly, it loses it’s specialness when it’s a computer sending it automatically. But even then, I admit, it feels at least a little flattering to be remembered.

3) GIVE A JUMPSTART – When your customer comes on board, what’s the first thing he gets? If it’s the product, that might be fine. But consider, you’ll have an even happier customer if he knows how to use what you’ve just sold him.

What more considerate way to make sure he can do that than by ‘thanking’ him with a simple well-guided tour around what he just purchased?

Maybe it’s a ‘user’s manual’ or maybe it’s an online video that walks through the steps. Maybe it’s just a brainstormed presentation on ways to use the product he might not be aware of.

Bottom line is, this kind of thorough start-up advice not only helps but back on early cancellations, but it also gives prospects that warm and welcoming feeling you’re hoping for.

4) GO “GINSU” AND GIVE MORE – I’m sure you know the “but wait there’s more” line from the “Ginsu Knife” commercials. To thank you for buying the knives, the sellers kept throwing in gifts.

If you weren’t spurred to action early, the extra bonuses would help seal the deal. Or so was the intent.

But imagine how grateful the buyer was every time he used one of those extra gadgets (I’m assuming they worked). “And,” he reminds himself, “I got this thing for free!”

5) SURPRISE ‘EM – What’s better than the gift that comes with your order? How about the gift you weren’t expecting.

If you bank on repeat business, thank a customer with a little extra, unannounced somethin’-somethin’ that shows up not too long after the actual product gets delivered or starts arriving (if, say, it’s a subscription product).

By the way, gifts to subscribers don’t HAVE to be high end. In the days of easy info delivery, a helpful e-book or the like can be a great way to deliver value on their end while keeping costs low on yours.

Along these same lines…

6) DELIVER 11th HOUR “TWIST” ON THE DEAL – Try making a customer feel appreciated by coming in, after the deal is almost done, with a last-minute deal, as in “Just to thank you for considering this offer, let’s do this…”

And then you can follow with a special break on the price you just used to close the sale, put a buy- one-get-one-free deal on the reply card, or throw in a donation to a popular charity.

All will seem like more sweetener for the offer, but these too will increase the warm and fuzzy factor, helping your prospects to feel appreciated.

And here’s one more…

7) HONOR LOYALTY – Ever since credit cards, airlines, and donut shops started rewarding repeat customers with visit stamps and reward points, the customer loyalty program has become ubiquitous. And this is a good thing.

But there are lots of other ways you can also thank customers for coming back. For instance, my main client once invited long-time customers to a gala party. Out of this came special “reserve” and “alliance” clubs, with other perks for long-time members only.

If you can, put your long time customers on a special list and send them occasional notes. Create special services, either free or a good but paid deal, that come with special “club level” designations and VIP treatment. Give them a special hotline number for customer service, no waiting.

The point is, they’re family. Make them feel it.

I’ve got more of these ideas, which I’ll share with you in the next issue.

Meanwhile, let’s close with this: If you set out to try any of these, do it with the right mindset. And that mindset is, of course, gratitude.

Nothing sells better than sincerity. A “thanks” that’s delivered with only manipulation in mind is no “thanks” at all.

Okay, more coming in a week.

Until then, best wishes to you and yours for Thanksgiving if you celebrate it… and hey, the same wishes even if you don’t.

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The One Thing Good Copy Can’t Fix

blueprintIn an interview, someone asked me for a “must-have” list for a  good piece of copy. I hit all the basics in my answer…

1) Benefits

2) More benefits

3) Specific and even shocking stats and proof

4) Third-party validation of your claims

5) Credibility building testimonials

5) Some track record of product success

6) A nice strong offer and airtight guarantee

7) And a firm push to get the order.

 Not a bad set of tools. But I left something out.

No copy will work if it isn’t build on top of a good sales effort STRATEGY. Now what exactly do I mean by that? I have to credit this insight to Roy Williams and his “Monday Morning Memo,” where he asked the question, “Which do you think would work better, the brilliant execution of a flawed strategy… or the flawed execution of a brilliant one?”

 Of course you know the answer. Think about it. Have you ever seen a movie with a great director… an all-star cast… and a screenplay you wouldn’t use to line a litter box? No matter how good the direction and performances are, they can rarely save a miserable script.

 On the other hand, get a great screenplay with a terrific plot and insightful, natural dialogue… and it’s hard for even a ham actor or egotistical director to screw it up.

 Something similar is true in sales copy. Strategy — a great product paired with a great offer and the ability to fulfill orders beyond the buyer’s expectations — is the cornerstone. If it stinks, it doesn’t matter how clever… how well printed or designed… or how stylistic your ad… because it’s still likely to flop.

 Meanwhile, a great strategy — which includes a great product, a great offer, and a strong guarantee, among other things — can work even in the hands of semi-amateurs.  Not always, but often.

 How do you know you’ve got a strategy problem?

If ad after ad isn’t working, no matter how good you ‘thought’ it read before going out the door… step back and look at the guts of what you’re doing. This is why it’s nice to have clients you work with over and over again. Especially those whose agenda you can anticipate… and who will listen to your input if you sense the strategy behind a product is weak.

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CR #485: Which Promises Work Best?

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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 <-

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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?

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Time to Get in Touch With Your Inner “Snooki?”

48EBEF9C-0C63-46AD-9A2A-A4F14F0AA24C.jpg Let me just preface this second bit by saying, I
don’t know diddly about reality TV.

You know I say that, in part, because I’m subconsciously trying to say something about myself… “I’m not the reality-TV-watching type.”

But also because, if you happen to be a fan of same, I want you to forgive me if I get some of these facts wrong…

There’s a show, apparently, called the “Jersey Shore.” Maybe you’ve seen it. I haven’t, but I’m wondering if I should.

Partly because I can’t begin to tell you how many people made a reference to it when they heard we were about to rent a house for a week in Ocean City, NJ.

Growing up, my Philly-based family spent lots of time at the Jersey shore. And while it wasn’t exactly like
the “yo, yo, yo” kind of big-hair experience I understand you can find on the hit TV show, I’ve got
to admit that there’s something unique to “summering” in Jersey.

Each beach town is decidedly different. But overall, it’s a place you go to meet “regular” people. The
Mediterranean cost this ain’t. The bubbly on ice is beer, not champagne. And cookouts trump caviar, by a long shot.

Nor is it, as a recent Slate article pointed out, “The Hills” — another reality show, apparently (how
is it I know nothing about what’s on TV these days?), that was all about the high and fashionable of
Beverly Hills.

What Slate pointed out is that the slick, plastic-enhanced face of “The Hills” plunged from popularity
along with the economy… as the raw earthiness of the “Jersey Shore” took its place.

I don’t know if I can go as far as Slate did in romanticizing the trend. But there does seem to be
something you can take away from all this.

When the going gets tough, the tough get real. It’s a metaphor. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s
an interesting one.

But it’s absolutely relevant to marketers. The face of the crowd is clearly changing. You’ll want to make sure your marketing efforts change with it too.

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Thinking Inside The Box

theboxWhat is creativity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well said, Marissa. Well said.

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How Ben Franklin Learned to Write

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

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

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

 (He never realized it would catch on).

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

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

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

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

 Or at least that’s what his father thought.

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

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

 Here’s how it works…

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

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

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

 Of course, Franklin took this exercise even further:

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

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

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

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

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

 Franklin saw that too.

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

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

 I do this all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

It could be yours too. 

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A Persuasion Secret Toddlers Teach

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

How so?

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

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

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

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

Ack.

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

Double ack.

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

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

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

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

Did it work? Like gangbusters.

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

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

Get that and everything else should fall in place.

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

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

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Sales Secrets from a Novel Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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