Category: Scientific Selling

Science that might explain why you think, act, and write the way you do.

When It Pays to Praise

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

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s the thing…

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

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

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

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

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

Pandering? Perhaps.

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

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

More

Ten Years After

flag memory wall signed 2 good-2.png

This has almost nothing to do with copywriting, but if you don’t mind — and even if you do — I’m going to continue anyway, yes?

See, these days, you’ll already seen and heard some heartbreaking tributes to the Twin Towers and, well, all that. I’d like to kick in for a second with a slightly alternate point of view.

First, let me say that… 9/11 happened.

When it did, I was just as deep in the moment as anybody We were in Paris at the time. With the time difference, it was already afternoon when the news crackled in over an office radio.

My French wasn’t good enough yet to understand what my French colleagues were wide-eyed and crying about. But knew it was something big.

“Excuse me for asking, John” said Luc, sounding a little more than panicked, “but where is your wife?”

My wife had been singing New York on the night of September 9. Her flight out was in the early afternoon the next day. So by the time the time that last “normal” morning dawned on Europe, she was already sleeping off jet lag in our apartment.

A plane, he explained, has hit one of the World Trade Towers. And then, “I’m sorry to say, but another plane has hit again.” I don’t know if Luc even knew anybody in Manhattan, but he looked close to tears as the newscasts came pouring in.

Just two months earlier, we’d moved to Paris, from a rented apartment in the Manhattan’s West Village. We had friends worked in or near the Towers.

All escaped injury except for one, a childhood friend of my youngest sister, who worked in a financial firm on a high floor. I hadn’t seen her since she was a little girl, maybe five or six years old. But at 25, apparently she ran marathons, always smiled, and was considered an “angel” by her friends.

She never made it out of the building.

Over the next few days, we stayed glued to CNN. Less than two weeks later, we were back in New York and in our apartment — we shared it with a part-time sublet — cleaning caked-up ash from the air-conditioner filter.

My mother sent an email message. “We’ve crossed a bridge,” she said. And there was no way to go back to the way it was just one day earlier. Of course, I had no idea then how right she would prove to be.

Over the next few years, anniversaries of 9/11 came and went. So did the news coverage, replete with montages and music, the amateur videos, and the purple prose. Fear and anger rose and fell, but never quite faded, eventually lapsing into a dull ache that would not go away.

And now, I too am tempted to sift through my pictures from that time. I had some shots I’d taken while we were visiting — of “Still Missing” posters, of piles of flowers, and of the withering wreck at Ground Zero.

I found some.

But I found something else too. Other photos from that same year, and a growing sense that there was a lot else subsumed by the shadows of that event. Other things well worth remembering. And it seemed only right that the best tribute to getting on with life, as one should after any tragedy, was to draw those memories back up to the surface too.

For instance, it happens that 2001 was the same year I started the e-letter behind this website. And 2001 is the year my wife and I got married, too. We had a great wedding and a gorgeous Italian honeymoon. Months later, when we moved to Paris, armed with less than 10 words of French. But we made do.

On the more painful side, 2001 is the same year my wife lost her father. This was also not long after 9/11. We flew over in an almost empty airliner and went from the airport to his hospital bed, where he had gone into a coma after heart surgery. He died less than two hours later, surrounded by the family.

That same year, my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was too late for conventional surgery, the doctor told him. But my mother found a breakthrough new procedure online. With radioactive iodine seeds and computer-mapped blasts of radiation. Only one center in Atlanta performed it and he would have to move their for eight weeks. They did and it managed to buy him another 10 years.

In that time, he met all three of his grandchildren, took over a scholarship fund for fatherless boys in Philadelphia, and went on more than a few adventurous trips with my mother, including two visits to Paris. He stayed in touch with other patients in the center. Some didn’t survive as long. Others did. And today the procedure is a standard treatment.

It was spring of 2004 when our son was born. Our daughter followed two years later. We also added two more nieces and a nephew. Family members got married. And we took multiple great trips to London, Lisbon, Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona and other places.

We made progress in French and made several friends in those same years. Tragically, we also said goodbye to two. (Cancer.) We learned enough of the language to get dangerous, but not enough that our bilingual don’t fail to correct us. Yet, somehow they still remain adorable.

In those ten years, I also wrote a few good promos, some books, and gave a lot of pretty good seminars. My income tripled and my savings grew tenfold. And we have, knock wood, stayed healthy.

But then, more terrible things happened too. From a heatwave that killed 40,000 in the EU… to the Boxing Day tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia… to earthquakes, Katrina, and two endless wars, the world took a beating. And we passed milestones of every shape and tenor.

One thing, though, you could not miss. That, while all tragedies remain tragedies, it was quickly clear that none exist in a vacuum, least of all 9/11. For awhile, it was the thing that sucked the life out of us. But now it seems different, like it’s life that’s overdue to absorb the event.

I say all this not to forget what happened. No doubt there’s pain that remains immediate to the 9/11 families. No doubt it’s altered the course of everything, in an infinitely more complex exercise of the butterfly effect.

But as we look back and dig into the photos and stories, as we re-open the old wounds, the question seems to present: at long last, is it time to place this one big memory in it’s space, relative to all those other things, rather than isolate it the way we have these year’s since?

Perhaps, I’m saying, it’s time to finish crossing that bridge; to step boldly, if greatly changed and more complicated, onto the other bank. Not to forget, but not to stop exploring whatever else there is.

More

How to Write in Your Sleep

340662F2-33CB-4CA3-9F2E-C32C4F0F5F03.jpg “Sleep,” said Shakespeare, “rock thy brain.”

Study after study shows it, a good night’s sleep makes for a sharper, more productive mind. And yet, your average worker gets 6 hours and 55 minutes. With half of those saying they were doing work up until an hour before going to bed.

A badge of honor worth wearing?

Hardly. Those hard-working types, it turns out, are hardly working… or at least, hardly working at true capacity. Despite delusions to the contrary.

Scientists have yet to figure out how sleep restores your brain function. But they have no doubt that it does. So ye sleep-deprived, if we get a lot done now… imagine what we could accomplish well-rested.

Maybe because I’ve always been an undisciplined sleeper myself, I’ve both collected and written plenty about sleep and how it fits into a creative life calling.

Rather than try to thread them all together, let me just hit you with a burst of some of what I’ve got on hand…

* Per Popular Science, when you zonk out after just learning something, you’re more likely to wake up with an even stronger memory of what you learned than when you went to bed. Why? REM sleep, when your eyes are darting under your eyelids, somehow reinforces and sorts the information. And non-REM sleep gives your neurons a chance to repair a day’s worth of free-radical damage.

* Per the same article, go jogging. Not only does it lead to deeper sleep at night, which is just as key to whatever the brain does while you sleep, but it also builds brain cells faster. In one 1999 study, lab rats had double the number for new brain cells after running (no, I don’t know how they got the little sneakers on their little rat feet).

* In a 2004 study from the University of Luebeck in Germany, 106 volunteers showed they could do three times better on a simple test than those who had piled up LESS than 8 hours of sleep.

* Think TV helps you get to sleep? Maybe. But it might make your sleep less restful. Studies show television disrupts sleep even if you shut it off hours before your head hits the pillow.

* Go easy on workaholic behavior. Working until 10 pm every night might feel righteous and good, but it’s not only hard on family life, you deny your body time to ‘untighten.” Studies show disrupted sleep for those who work until they drop, no matter how nobly they manage to do so.

* That said, a 15-minute review of key work details is enough to get that “wake with the solution” result so many crave. Be sure to keep that notepad on your nightstand.

* Have trouble sleeping? Try the counter-intuitive. Like exercise in the morning. And loads of sunlight. Plus a short afternoon nap (emphasis on short: 10-15 minutes at lunch time is nothing to feel guilty about).

* Eat a protein breakfast. Yes, zero carbs. No toast. No bagel. Definitely not doughnuts, fruit juice, or anything with sugar. It will buy you an extra few hours. It may even get you through the day. You’ll be even better off if you do the same for lunch. Or skip lunch entirely and take a walk instead. Whatever you do, do NOT eat big in the middle of the day.

* In a real pinch, drink coffee but drink it right. Which means sipping it slowly — cold if you have to — on the hour or half hour. The longer you make the cup last, studies show the longer you can last. Not a substitute for sleep, but a fail-safe when you can’t get any.

* Forget, by the way, trying to make up for a week of not sleeping enough by “sleeping in” on the weekends. North of nine hours or more, it turns out, can make you just as tired and even age you just as fast as too little sleep.

Try this.

For one week, go to bed at 11 pm at the latest. Even if you have “lots to do.” And wake up when you wake, if you can, which should be around 6 am or 7 am. If you need to get up earlier, move the bedtime to 10 pm.

Then come back and tell me how you feel… and how much more productive you are.

More

The Single Secret to Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Really incredible, don’t you think?

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

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

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

    More

    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.

    More

    The Details That Close Sales

    magnifyMies van der Rohe, a twentieth-century architect, once said that God hides in the details. And says writer Anne Lamott, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”

    What is it that they know that we don’t? Not much, actually.

    Since, after all, any good copywriter also knows that when you really… really… want to make for a powerful sales pitch, digging into the small details can be your most powerful technique. 

    Here’s an example. Which of the following descriptions sounds better to you?

    “I live on a big street in the city.”

    Or…

    “I live on a leafy, sun-dappled boulevard in Paris?”

    For me, both are true. Because they’re one and the same.

    But doesn’t the second “option” sound better?

    Here’s another example…

    Some years ago, I gave a copy seminar in Poland. I knew nothing about the country, honestly,
    except what I’d seen on the news about labor strikes in the 1980s… and what I’d read in history books about World War II.

    I came away, however, as travelers often do after seeing a totally new place up close. In fact, some of those images still stick with me today. It was, in short, a really nice place.

    Oh… wait… just saying it was “nice” isn’t enough?

    Okay, here’s more: Outside of Krakow, we saw an underground cathedral built deep inside a salt mine and decorated with a dozen crystal chandeliers and life-size religious statues made entirely of salt.

    In the Royal Palace, the walls were covered with etched leather. On Sunday, we fed walnuts to the peacocks that wander Warsaw’s park. We dined on spinach-filled perogi and drank warm honey wine.

    Now… which description wakes up your imagination?

    “Nice” or the ones that actually painted a picture. No, I’m not writing a travel brochure here, but I’m sure you get the point. Those details that make the images more alluring, are what some writers call “actualities.” And they can make all the difference when you’re trying to persuade somebody to do anything in print.

    See, many new copywriters get in the bad habit of painting their word pictures in only broad strokes. And sometimes, that’s enough. For instance, when you’re breezing past a point that’s already clearly imprinted on your prospect’s mind… and that’s been illustrated ad infinitum elsewhere.

    But other times, you’ve got a lot of selling power locked in the “actualities” or fine details of the images you’re presenting or the product you’re selling.

    Dig out the right ones and trot them past your prospect, and you could just unlock the selling opportunity that otherwise might have passed you by.

    Here’s another example…

    A LEAD THAT’S WORKED FOR 17 YEARS

    For at least the last 17 years, the newsletter INTERNATIONAL LIVING has mailed a sales package that begins:

    “You look out your window, past your gardener, who is busily pruning the lemon, cherry, and fig trees…amidst the splendor of gardenias, hibiscus, and hollyhocks.

    “The sky is clear blue. The sea is a deeper blue, sparkling with sunlight.

    “A gentle breeze comes drifting in from the ocean, clean and refreshing, as your maid brings you breakfast in bed.

    “For a moment, you think you have died and gone to heaven. But this paradise is real. And affordable. In fact, it costs only half as much to live this dream lifestyle…as it would to stay in your own home!”

    What makes that work, in your mind?

    The newsletter is about retiring overseas… it’s about travel to exotic, undiscovered places… it’s about a life transformation that begins when you take a step out into the world.

    Could a letter selling the product possibly start in any other way? As it happens, in this case, they’ve never really beaten it… except with other letters that were just as focused on those fine and enticing kinds of travel details.

    And even then, only for a short while.

    Too much detail, of course, is just as much of a hindrance as too little. But just the right touch, like a dash of paint in just the right spot on a canvas… or a splash of the right spice in a stew… can make your copy incredibly powerful.

    Here’s a rundown of what a really well chosen “actuality” can do…

    IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE “REAL”: The right “actuality” can give a story a much greater presence, a feel of truth.

    IT CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE UNIQUE: Getting specific is often the fastest way to make average copy rise above the mean. Why?

    Because the details prevent the reader from lumping your message in with other ones that would otherwise sound so similar. Simple enough.

    IT CAN EXPRESS MORE IN A SMALL SPACE: Again, good description doesn’t mean writing longer. In fact, it often means the opposite.

    A good word-picture example can make a message clear faster than a drawn-out explanation of a point.

    IT CAN TRANSPORT THE READER: Like a good movie or book, where the audience gets lost in the story, careful use of detail can draw a prospect into getting “lost” in (wrapped up in) the excitement of your sales message.

    How much detail is TOO much?

    You need just enough detail to stir emotions and put images inside the reader’s head.

    Some other tips…

    * Try delivering the detailed image first, then follow up with a promise… either to deliver on a good image or to help a prospect avoid a bad one, depending on what you’ve presented.

    * Focus on sensory details (touch, sight, sound, taste, smell) and numbers. The former appeal most to emotions, the latter to logic.

    * Use details to show transition or improvement: “Jeff Johansen used to take a city bus to the unemployment office. Now he drives an S-class Mercedes to the gym…”

    * Describe an emotional reaction you want your prospect to feel. “Dear Friend, When I read the latest report from the FDA, I just about dropped my coffee mug. Let me show you what it said…”

    You get the point. The goal of the actuality is simple. It is to allow the reader to see your writing as more than just word patterns on a white page.

    More

    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.

    More

    A Surprising Storytelling Secret

    stories book.png I recently gave a Skype interview on how to use stories to make sales.

    I’m sure you guys know, I’ve talked about this a few times in my weekly e-letter (see the sign up box on this page).

    We even had a full chapter on it, in the book “Great Leads,” which I wrote with copy mentoring great, Michael Masterson.

    (I swear to you — it’s *finally* going up on Amazon.com, sometime this week. I’ll get you a link as soon as there’s one available.)

    I had a great time doing the interview. Enough that I kept thinking of things I wanted to add, long after finishing the call.

    I’d just come across a few great tips, for instance, from a semi-surprising source (though not so surprising when you think about it): Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of the cartoon South Park.

    Parker and Stone popped in on a freshman writing class at NYU –where yours truly also studied some screenwriting — to talk for a few minutes about how they keep their story ideas compelling.

    One secret they offer is… get yourself a deadline. A hard, serious one that drives you. Stone and Parker write an episode per week. “We’ve got a scary deadline every Thursday morning.”

    Another tip I’m sure you’ve heard before, which is to put your ideas out there quickly. Don’t wait until they’re fully baked. And when they get out there, make sure you’ve got a roomful of critics who understand they need shaping, rather than critics who will just shoot the idea down.

    First ideas are rarely amazing.

    And here’s the tip I like best. When you’re writing out a story to sell, to tell, or whatever… look for what writers call the “story beats.”

    These are the spots where you plot twists and turns, the angles on which you frame an outline.

    Once you have those beats, read through and see if you can put the phrase “and then” between each beat.

    If you can… that’s a problem. Every “and then” is a moment where you could lose your reader (or viewer) to some distraction.

    Better is writing that turns on the phrases “therefore” or “but.” That is, every moment in the story either forces the next one, creating continuity, or flips away from the last “beat” in a way that creates tension.

    In selling, the stories you’re telling are usually short, just long enough to illustrate an idea or sneak in a proof or promise.

    But this is a good way to think about your copy throughout, too. That is, is your sales letter just one long string of disconnected sales points? Or does it follow a flow that your reader can’t swim against?

    And just when they think they know where you’re headed, are you waking them back up with a rhetorical explosion or “twist” of their expectations?

    Something worth thinking about.

    More

    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.

    More

    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.

    More