Johann Underwald was a Swiss math whiz. When I say “whiz” I mean he was smart. Very smart. Some called him “the next Albert Einstein.”
But one day, back in October 1999, Underwald and friends decided to go bungee jumping. Big deal, right? After all, despite all the hype, bungee jumping is a surprisingly low-casualty sport.
Unless that is you happen to be Underwald.
They scheduled their jump into a beautiful 250-foot gorge. But in what could only be remembered later as a head-smackingly stupid and hugely humbling development, it turned out that Underwald the highly respected math-whiz had erroneously measured out a cord of 300 feet.
Sometimes, it’s all too easy for your best intentions to… er… fall flat on their face. Not because you weren’t excited enough from the outset. But because when it came to the execution, you failed to follow through on the details.
I’m sure you know what I mean, especially this time of year.
You start out your New Year with big ambitions, busting through the swinging saloon doors of the universe full of hope and promise. What happens next? Just a few months in, you let the unexpected get in the way. Out the window goes the diet. Up in flames goes the promise to quit smoking. The samba lessons, training for the marathon, learning to speak Mandarin? Forget about it. Come March or even February, you’ve slipped back into the same revolving groove. Before you know it, it’s December 31st all over again and you’re singing the same old song from years prior.
Which is why, this year, I want to suggest you get started in another way.
You may, indeed, have already made your resolutions. But before you let yourself slip completely under the surface in the wellspring of your good intentions, let’s step back for just a moment and take measure first.
Specifically, let’s spend a moment — at long last — examining a few of those bad habits that have torpedoed your resolutions in years prior. Even more specifically, since this is after all supposed to be a blog about copywriting, let’s take a closer look at the obstacles that could overwhelm you during your year of writing ahead… sound good?
So, one of the burdens we face when we set out on a new venture is the baggage we sometimes insist on dragging behind us. With that in mind, let’s start by asking… what’s your baggage?
I can’t even count for you, at this point, how many newbie copywriters I’ve worked with. But I can tell you that one of the most common early copywriting career burdens — and it’s even a hinderance for a few less-successful industry veterans — is pride in our own cleverness.
I think you know what I’m talking about. Instead of writing copy that persuades, they’d rather whip out their best puns, humor, and headline word play. Okay, yes. We all do it from time to time. But how often have you indulged, in the hopes that your own cleverness would make you and/or your client look smart? Fun as it might have been, did that preening act make your sales copy more effective… or less? Since not everybody is clever in the same way, most likely the answer is less.
So let’s say, this year, before you decide to do anything, decide to step away from all that. Instead, let’s make 2010 the “year of the customer.” Benefits, core emotional drivers, targeted offers they just can’t resist.
What else might be holding you back, year after year?
Let’s talk about procrastination. Nasty stuff, that. And an albatross ’round the neck of far too many. Think about it. Are you the type that feels “busy” when you log in to answer your email, first thing in the AM? Does your checklist start with the little things and save the big things for later? Do you ever find yourself, during the day, feeling sick or even kicking yourself because time has almost run out and you “haven’t gotten a thing done?”
If yes, most likely you’re frittering away the minutes at the expense of the hours, days, weeks, months, and — yes — limited years of your life. And there’s no time better to break that habit than immediately.
Of course, this applies to many more things than just your copywriting career. But let’s try a suggestion from copywriting great Gene Schwartz that might show you how to break that procrastination cycle.
It starts when you get yourself an egg timer. Got one? Good. Now, every morning, do NOTHING until you’ve put in at least 33 minutes working on the biggest and most important project on your docket. And by important, I mean the one that’s closest to putting income on your bottom line and earning you respect in the industry.
In other words, all the small, urgent stuff… the quick phone calls, the emails, the must-have daily meetings… gets pushed to the back of the list It’s end of the day stuff. And that same time, you want to move your biggest projects — the ones you dread getting started on the most — right up to the front.
Now, with the help of your timer, you’re ready to start carving away huge self-satisfying chunks of that project. Try setting the timer six times in a row at the 33 minute mark. Take a five-minute break after the third session or even between sessions if you have to. And make it a rule from now on that this is how you’ll start every morning.
All told, that’s only 3.3 hours of work per morning. Even if you’re getting started at the leisurely hour of nine, you’d be done in plenty of time for lunch. Yet you’ll be amazed at how much better, more relaxed, and valuable you’ll feel having accomplished something bigger than just the routine stuff that used to waste so much of your first-thing energy. What’s more, you’ll now have the entire afternoon to come back to all of that stuff.
This process, by the way and with or without the timer, is called “inverting your agenda.”
You’ve probably heard the old story. If you want to fill a jar with sand, pebbles, and big stones… put in the big stones first, the pebbles next, then dump in the sand to fill spaces in between. Any other order, and you’ll never fit it all in.
On a related note, let’s talk laziness. Sloth.
Procrastination is often the busy work that looks frantic but gets you nowhere. But to stumble through life complacent is like committing that same kind of crime, times ten. Think about it. When you finally earn your tombstone, how would you feel if nobody had a clue what to carve upon it?
“He napped,” it could read.
At your funeral, what if your eulogy was dead air? What if nobody could remember anything important you’d ever done? What if you were to suddenly realize on your deathbed that you had just been “there” all your life, present but not accountable for much of anything except wasting oxygen?
There’s a joke “motivational poster” I’ve seen making the rounds online. It’s a picture of an empty toilet paper holder of the simple spring-action type. Balanced on top of the empty holder is a roll of already-started paper. Underneath, the de-motivational caption reads “Because somebody else will do it.”
Don’t let that be you, the one that rides up the mountain on somebody else’s back.
Look, even I know that if I’m going to sell you on an idea there’s no easier way for me to do that than… well… for me to make it sound easy to you, too. Yet, there’s no way around it — good results demand good effort. You’ve simply got to log the hours, do the work, make it happen. Or don’t bother.
It’s that simple.
Ask yourself, if you’re trying to start your career… have you really gotten on the mailing lists of prospective clients? Do you really read as many frequently seen direct response letters as you can? Have you really made the effort to get your first writing gig, even if that means starting locally, getting paid a little less in exchange for the experience and portfolio samples, or — yep — maybe even working on “spec?”
(“Spec” means “speculative,” where you’ll only get paid if your new client uses your stuff. Some don’t recommend it. But given that an uncertain payoff at the start seems to be a common thread even among the top copywriters I know, I say don’t knock it — as a last resort, it could be your best way in.)
If you’re already working at this career path, but you’re wondering why you still haven’t gotten yourself all that far, then you’ve got a new round of self-reflective questions to ask. For instance, sure you can produce copy… but is it the best copy you can produce? That is, are you really building a relentless succession of persuasive sales points… or are you just writing something to fill space?
How deeply did you dig when you did the research? How hard have your really tried to understand the customer? Does that include time talking to customer service, reading product-related forum posts, or walking the floor at product-related conferences?
Likewise, how well do you really know the product you’re selling? How many of the past sales-letter controls have you read? “All of them” is the only right answer. How much time have you spent interviewing the product creator, staff members, and anybody else close to the core interest of whatever you’ve been hired to write about? Your notes can and often should exceed the length of your final sales piece at least once and as much as three times over.
Bottom line: The greats in any field, this one included, aren’t the natural-born geniuses. They’re the guys (and gals) that put in the hours, more so than anybody else. That’s it. That’s the ultimate success secret. And it’s not just the total amount of hours but the way in which those hours are budgeted.
You have got to get a sense of where in your time schedule you’re going to draw the biggest payoff. In writing copy for hire, the best service you offer — and therefore the one he’s paying you for most — is your ability to take a lot of unique and potentially complex value, and boil that down to the most essential, most persuasive promise that will appeal to the target customer.
You are, in effect, a translator.
And before you can translate anything, everybody knows you have to understand it first. So what’s the first thing you should do this year? I suggest budgeting about double the time you normally do to study the angles on everything you write about and everybody you’re writing to. Commit to knowing it as fully as it can be known, even before you write your first headline.
Because that’s how you find the unique selling angles nobody else has found before.
Do it right and this will take you less and less time with each project, especially if you win over clients for repeat business. With the added bonus being that, the more work you do for the same client, the more loyal that client becomes to your copywriting business — simply because you’re the one that knows the products and customer base the best.
This list, of course, could go on forever.
But if you just pay attention to these few obstacles now, you’ll be able to put together a much stronger “to do in 2010” plan than you’ve written out at the start of any year prior.
Because I think this is so important to your success, let me just bundle up some of these ideas in another way…
During the year, I teach at a few writing seminars. And I almost always come away surprised by two things. First, I’m impressed by the caliber of many of the students. You meet some sharp people at these events, including people who’ve done amazing things in other phases of their lives. Or who at least have great insights into the world and how it works.
Yet, here’s the second shocker I come across, and all too frequently: You just wouldn’t believe how many of these smart, otherwise-accomplished people then tell me “I’ve ordered that course on copywriting… but I haven’t had a chance to get started.” And then, in the same breath, ask me for recommendations on other courses or resources they can buy and — most likely — still not use!
I call it the exercise bicycle phenomenon.
I’ll bet you know how that goes. Full of ambition, you bust out and get yourself an exercise bike. You’ll be the Lance Armstrong of the indoor Tour de France, you tell yourself. A champion in your own private world. You’ll even put the bike in your bedroom, so as to remind you that it’s there for you to hop onto first thing every morning. The first day, you put the world’s fastest hamster to shame with your wheel spinning. The next morning, you huff through another few miles. Just a month or so later, though, you’re only using the thing as a towel rack. Sigh.
I see the same thing happen over and over again to these people I’m telling you about. They buy the course. They buy the books. They go to the seminars. They talk up their ambitions to everybody who listen. And then, almost without even noticing it themselves… they quit. They just stop getting started. End of story. Double sigh.
When I come across somebody in that boat, I tell them the same thing. I’ll repeat it for you here: Studying this stuff is great. But getting started is what really matters. Do it any way you can. Make this year that year you’ll remember as the beginning of everything grand.
Easier said than done?
Well, of course. Isn’t everything worthwhile slave to that maxim?
But yet again, I’m going to throw a line to my old friend Michael Masterson, copywriting mentor extraordinaire, who has given lots of generous advice on how to transform long-term goals into d0-it-today specific and immediate steps.
It’s a simple but powerful philosophy Michael espouses. In short, work backward from where you want to be 20 years or even 10 years from now, and break it down by year… by month… by week. Tomorrow. Today.
The smaller and more specific the steps you identify, the better. At least until you’ve broken it all down into the manageable, checklist kinds of details. And then make it a habit to carefully review that specific list each morning and again each evening. Michael actually carries index cards in his pocket, pulls them out, and checks things off while puffing a cigar.
It’s the connection between long-term goals and short-term action that’s key, however. No throwaway events on that daily checklist, in other words. All are there because they’re clearly building to what’s bigger. In this way, Michael has cranked out nearly a dozen books, added millions to his personal fortune, attained high level status in martial arts training, and quite a bit more.
It works, if you’re willing. And it’s not new. Aristotle would have called it — and did — “habits of virtue.” It worked for him. It’s worked for Michael and millions of others. Surely it could work for me and you.