Category: Writing Process

How writers write.

#486: A Sweet, Dark History of the Promise Lead

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candies.pngYou’ll remember from the last post, I’m showing you guys some of the raw material for a book on six types of leads.

And we’ve been looking at what my co-author Michael Masterson and I call the “Promise Lead.”

Admittedly, this is a tough one.

Why, you ask?

(Don’t look at me all confused like that… I HEARD you ask something… right?)

After all, don’t ALL sales leads have a promise implied inside them somewhere?

Yes, they do.

And we said as much last week.

But haven’t pure, flat-out promises been so overexposed in sales leads that the world is chock-a-block with skeptics who no longer hear said promises anymore?

Yes, that too is true. Well, mostly true.

My take on that last point is this: First, Promise Leads work very well with a certain kind of customer.

No, dear reader, not the stupid ones.

They work best, rather, with a prospect that’s sitting on the fence… ready to buy, but still awaiting that last nudge.

Any more ready, and you’d just hit them with a juicy “Offer Lead,” right out of the gate.

Any less ready, and you’d try something a little more subtle first, so as to shut down those filters we all wear to guard against an onslaught of too-much-the-same, unbelievable messages.

But in those moments, with an almost-ready prospect, busting through the saloon doors armed with a big promise can be an excellent choice.

So this week, let’s pick up where we left off.

Again, this is raw stuff… fresh out of the oven, not yet dressed for the table. Proceed at your own risk…

How a Promise Made This Candy Famous

When writing a Promise Lead, where should you start?

The default for most marketers is to study the product and just figure out what it can do best. We’ve all heard, after all, the lesson about “features” versus “benefits.” First you make a list of the products best features, and then you translate those into what they will do for the customer.

Simple.

It’s a lesson you may have heard connected before with one of the most successful product pitches in history. Forrest E. Mars grew up in candy maker’s house. And with some big shoes to fill. His father’s home business grew to invent and sell some of the world’s most famous candy bars, including Snickers, Mars Bars, and Milky Ways.

But Forrest’s father didn’t want to expand the business and Forrest, fresh home from Yale University, did. So he sold his share in the business back to Dad and moved to Europe. That’s where he took up with other candy makers.

It’s also where he first spotted the breakthrough that would help change the chocolate business, the course of World War II, and millions of kids’ birthday parties — and indirectly, the advertising industry.

It was a tiny pellet of chocolate, wrapped in a candy shell, found in the field kits of soldiers fighting the Spanish Civil War. The chocolate gave them quick energy, the shell kept it from melting under harsh conditions.

We know it now, of course, as the M&M.

Forrest took it back to the States and patented his own formula for the candy in 1941. Within a year, the U.S. was committed to World War II. And not long after, M&Ms made their way into soldiers’ field rations. When the soldiers came home, the candies were a hit with the general public.

But sales were about to get even bigger.

Forrest realized that television — making it’s way into the mainstream at that time — was the next place he wanted to go to sell M&Ms. He hired a copywriter named Rosser Reeves to do it. It turned out to be another groundbreaking move.

Reeves, at the time, was already a success. He was both copy chief and vice president of his agency in New York. But when he sat down with Forrest Mars to talk candy, he listened and took notes like a first-year copywriter.

“He was the one who said it,” claimed Reeves in the version we’ve heard told. “He told me the whole history and then I pressed him and he said, ‘Well, the thing is they only melt in your mouth, but they don’t melt in your hands.'”

That was all Reeves needed.

Within four years, Mars was selling one million pounds of M&Ms per week. M&Ms have since gone on Space Shuttle flights with astronauts. They’ve been the official candy of the Olympics. And according to Business Week, they’re the best-selling candy in the world.

Mars died at ate 95 in 1999, with a $4 billion fortune. And his candy company takes in over $20 billion per year, with 30,000 employees worldwide.

It’s no accident that Reeves went on to his own kind of fame. And not just because Reeves happens to be the real-life model for the character of Don Draper on TV’s series, Mad Men.

You might know him even better, after all, as the father of what every copy cub and professional advertiser memorizes as the “Unique Selling Proposition” or “U.S.P.”

To Find the Promise, Find This First…

When Reeves first wrote about it the U.S.P. in his book Reality in Advertising, he was writing down the formula you can use to write any effective Promise Lead.

Reeves formula had three parts.

The first part, for Reeves, also meant starting with the product. And only if that product was actually good enough to almost sell itself. As a preacher’s son, Reeves was fundamentally honest and felt all advertising should be too. The product must be able to do what you’ll say it can do.

But an even better reason for starting with the product is the second part of Reeve’s formula. What the product does and by default will claim to do has to be original. That is, the best products do something competitors won’t or can’t. That’s key because the U.S.P. — the promise you’ll make — has to sound and feel different from everything your prospect has heard before, too.

Then there’s the final part of Reeve’s formula. This is the one most forgotten, but it’s impossible to overlook if you’ve got any hope of coming up with a powerful promise. Every promise must target your prospect’s core desire. That is, they have to already want what you’re promising.

This is worth repeating.

Reeves believed, and so do we, that you can’t create desire in a customer. You can only awaken what’s already there. This is especially true in a pure Promise Lead, where you have nothing but the claim pulling all the weight. The more tightly you can target those core desires, the more likely your ad will work.

It’s that simple.

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10 “Speed-Copy” Secrets

speedy

The better you get at writing good copy, the more clients will want access to your time. In the beginning, you’ll want to give it to them.

But as time goes by, you won’t be able to.

You’ll try to cherry pick projects, taking on only those that won’t bog you down disproportionately to what you’ll get in return.

But what happens when you have no other choice than to just… write… faster?

You can try these tips…

1) Really DO Cherry-Pick Projects

It’s great to be eager.

But you’ll find there really are some copywriting jobs that just aren’t worth it. Which ones? Be wary, for instance, of poorly baked products with no clear audience or no clear benefit for the audience they’re meant to target.

Likewise, look out for projects without a passionate champion on the client side. If there’s nobody who can sell you on what you’re supposed to be selling, there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard time selling it to prospects, too.

And finally, look out for projects that don’t have at least 85% of the pieces in place before you get started. Unless, that is, you’re also being paid to help develop the product… a different and more involved job than just writing the sales letter.

2) Know Your Load

Four solid hours of writing, day in and day out, with rest of the day for calls, meetings, and email is actually a pretty solid pace. Sure, one can go longer when needed. But writing can be physically draining, if you’re doing it right.

Copywriter Bob Bly once told me that, while he also logs only about four hours on each project per day, he stays fresh by working keeping two projects going at once and switching to four hours on the second project in the

I’ve tried that. And sometimes it works. But frankly, once I start working on something — anything — I get too caught up in in it to let it go. So I actively try to avoid other projects until I’ve got the first one completed.

Your style will be up to you.

3) Gather Your Resources, Part I

One of the best ways to accelerate the pace on any writing project is to feed it the nourishment in needs to get started. That nourishment is information.

Read up, interview, discuss.

Call the most central figure for the product that the client can offer and do a phone interview. Record it and start typing as you play it back. You’ll need other resources along the way. But this is where you’ll need to begin, if you want to make sure you burst out of the gate with as much power as possible.

4) Build Your Framework

Once you’ve got a grasp on the general direction you’ll need to take in the promo, you’ll want — no, need — to make an outline. Too many early writers skip this step. Many say they don’t need it.

Yet, for all but a rare few, unstructured writing shows. The benefit of an outline is that you know where you need to go. But you also know, as you pile up research and ideas, where you DON’T need to go.

And that’s equally important.

5) Gather Your Resources, Part II

Once you’ve pulled together a rough outline of where you’re headed, you’ll immediately start to see the additional holes you’ll need to fill.

Now it’s time to go out again and start digging. Pile up links, magazine clippings, notes from studying the product and the customer base. Notes from talking to the client.

Just for the record, the research part of your copywriting process should almost always take the most time. How much longer?

A fair breakdown, if you’re working with a product you don’t know well, is about 50% of your total time available spent on research. And then 30% on writing the first draft. Plus another 20% for polishing and revision.

6) Try Writing in 3D

You would think that writing the beginning first, the middle second, and the end last would be the best way to go. And for many writers, that’s precisely the path the follow. However, I’d personally recommend creating a writing system that’s a little more non-linear.

What do I mean?

Research, ideas, phrases… tend to arrive in a disorderly fashion, just like a conversation that leaps from one topic to another entirely.

So what I do is write in sections. I actually create separate, labeled parts of my file in Word. These sections match my outline or “mind-map” of the message I’d like to deliver.

Then, as I research and revise, I jump back and forth between sections, adding to one, tightening another, copying and moving pieces of ideas.

Each area fleshes out at roughly the same time, then I reorganize them to fit the more logical, linear outline that will underlie the final piece.

7) Write Your Close First

Here’s an interesting idea — start at the end. And I can give you at least two solid reasons to do this.

First, because the offer you write will, word for word, have more impact on the prospect than any other section of the promo — save for the headline and lead. If the offer stinks, you haven’t got a chance no matter how brilliant your copywriting.

Second, because knowing specifically how you’ll close the sale gives you a target to shoot for. This, too, is a great defense against the tangents that can knock you off the trail of your sales message all too easily.

8 ) Give Your Lead Room to Breathe

I know perfectionism is a killer problem for a lot of new writers. Get over that. Really. Why?

Because you’ll kill yourself and your career trying to get the right word line-by-line. Especially when you sacrifice writing the bulk of the rest of that promo while you tinker and tinker… and tinker… with the lead.

Here’s an alternate idea… put the headline and lead copy in a separate document or somehow cordoned off from the rest of your promo. Open that alternate writing area whenever you’re working on the main document.

Whenever you have an idea about how to make the lead stronger, dip into that alternate writing window, make the changes and then jump back to the rest of the piece.

I do this a dozen or more times while I’m writing, with the headline and lead changing 10… 20… or more times before I’m through.

9) Learn to “Copyify” Your Notes As You Research

This takes practice. But you’ll through your copy much faster if, when you take notes from resources you’ll use, you record the notes directly into copywritten form.

For instance, not “Mention last year’s booming commodity market to support resource buying op”… but rather “Last year’s booming commodities market is the perfect example. Had you subscribed to my ‘Dirt, Rocks, and Other Investments’ advisory service then, you’d already be up XXX% on Mud Futures alone by now.”

You get the picture.

If you can record your ideas quickly in a form that’s close to the sound you’ll want for the final draft, obviously that cuts back future writing time.

10) Use Markers and Shortcuts

This last one is a small thing. But very, very handy.

Let’s say you’re writing and you need to cite a stat you don’t have at your fingertips, try just dropping in “XX” where that falls.

Or let’s say you need a subhead to transition between sections but the perfect one escapes you at the moment. Don’t get stuck. Instead, drop in “[SUBHEAD HERE]” and keep moving.

The idea is to preserve the momentum at all costs. Just make sure you search the replacement phrases and fill things in after the writing is done.

This list could go on, of course. But that’s a pretty good start.

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Can You Judge a Customer By His Cover?

apple.png Or maybe that title should read: “Can you judge a customer by his… computer?”

You’d have to live on the moon to have missed Apple’s long running ad campaign, “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” It was textbook psychographic targeting, associating the product with a personality type.

It worked, but why?

Maybe this will help explain:

In a recent study (I’m afraid I no longer have access to the source) it turns our more than half of Mac users live in the big city. Meanwhile, PC people are about 18% more likely to live in the burbs and 21% more likely to live in the countryside.

By a wide margin (50% more), Mac people love to throw parties. Or at least say they do. While about 23% of PC people say they’d rather not.

However, nearly 30% of PC people like to fit in with the group. Not so with Mac people, who tend to crave their own “uniqueness,” generally speaking.

PC people lean more to cake and candy snacks. Mac people? They’re about 7% more likely to go for peanuts and potato chips.

PC people tend to like tuna fish sandwiches more. Mac people supposedly favor bistro-type fries.

If you’re PC, you’re more likely to drink California Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. If you’re Mac, you’ll crack open a Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon instead.

Believe it or not, Mac people are more likely to think of themselves as tech-savvy nerds.

PC users are 43% more likely, meanwhile, to feel about as comfortable with computers as they are with learning a foreign language. Or so says the poll.

Who watches more “60 Minutes?” The Mac users. And who watches “20/20?” That would be our friends on the PC.

“Moby Dick” is more a Mac novel. And “Great Expectations” leans more toward the PC.

And on it goes.

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Brainstorming For One

“Brain-writing” is not my term. But we’re going to make it our own by revising it a little to make it more productive…

You brainstorm to get ideas when you have none.

Ideally, you do so in a group. So you can feed off each other. So you can legitimize sitting around drinking coffee. So you can get others to do all the hard thinking for you.

In all those respects, group brainstorming is a good thing.

But what do you do when you’re writing in isolation?

Brain-writing is a way to kick ideas around … jumpstart your engines … and get into that “zone” of creativity that you normally hope to get in a group session.

In fiction circles, there’s something similar called “free-writing.”

USUALLY, it simply means setting a timer, putting pen to page, and letting the ideas pour.

Whatever it is, you write it down. You don’t stop until your pen runs out of ink or your elbow balloons like a grapefruit.

But there are two problems with free-writing when you apply it to writing promo copy:

  • First, pens come with a lot of ink these days. Even the dime-store ballpoints could keep you scribbling well past deadline.
  • Second, sometimes it’s the very prospect of a blank page … the sight of a blinking cursor… and the notion of all that cerebral “freedom” … that’s got you stymied in the first place.

There is a more efficient way to get started.

If you were about to make bricks, would you begin without clay? If you were getting ready to make glass, would you begin without sand? If you wanted to make punch, would you leave out the hooch?

Of course not.

So why is it writers of any kind so often try to start conjuring up ideas out of thin air?

For all the reasons to get “blocked,” this is the easiest of them to resolve.

Before you begin your solo brainstorming session (or a group one, for that matter), get yourself a hefty stack of “stuff” about the product. Aim for height. An inch is too little. A foot is too high. Somewhere in the middle ought to do it.

Next to this, put a fresh stack of index cards … a legal pad … and/or a computer.

This is where the “brain-writing” comes in. Start reading. Start taking notes.

The process remains “free” in the sense that you shouldn’t try to organize the ideas at this point. Record them as they come. You’ll sort later.

However, contrary to popular creativity myths, discipline has a role. For instance:

You’ll need to keep yourself from focusing too long on any one aspect of your research.

You’ll need to force yourself to write in full-fledged ad copy, rather than just recording notes.

And you’ll need to make sure, always, that the central promise of your ad is the magnet pulling you through the muck of ideas you’ll produce.

You should have at least six kinds of things in your “brain-writing” stack before you begin:

  1. Competitors’ ads.If you write direct mail, you know there’s no excuse for not being seeded on competing lists. Keep a box of other people’s promos by your desk.
  2. Samples of the competitors’ products.You can probably get comped, as a professional courtesy. But, at least once in awhile, go through the subscription process anonymously. You might learn something from the way they do business.
  3. Printouts of relevant web sites.Yes, printouts. If you’d rather, you can make handwritten notes while scrolling a screen. But avoid the temptation to bookmark links, save pages, or copy and paste text into word documents. No matter what you think … the only way to really absorb the ideas is to re-interpret them for your own notes.
  4. Relevant magazines and newspapers.Big media has the budget to gather persuasive stats and anecdotes. Again, copy the information in your own hand. Don’t just clip and count on coming back to it later. HOWEVER, make sure you note your sources with every factoid – both for legal reasons and because you’ll get extra credibility when you cite a respected source.
  5. History and non-fiction bestsellers.Sometimes, nothing can be more valuable than going down to your local bookstore to see what your prospects are reading. It’s an excellent way to put your thumb on the popular zeitgeist. Restrict yourself, however, to buying two books … tops. If you’re under any kind of deadline, you won’t have time for more than that.
  6. Your product manager’s “best of.”Any good product manager will give you the following items when you start a copywriting project: product-related e-mails, raw testimonials, 3rd-party reviews and endorsements, product-related news clippings, free “giveaways” that come with the offer, notes from past brainstorming meetings, past control packages, tapes or transcripts of conversations with customers, customer service letters, interviews with core people connected with the product, and phone numbers of people you can call to talk to about the product.

This is, of course, just a partial list. You could add more. But even with only the above, you should be drowning in new ideas before day’s end.

(At which point, you’ll have a different problem – more ideas than you can spend in one piece! Every copywriter should be so lucky, right? Save the leftovers for the test mailing.) The beauty of this simple approach is that you don’t need a soul around to help you make it pay off. In fact, isolation makes it easier.

Tip: At some point, you’ll make it to the bottom of the stack or you’ll feel in your gut that you’ve got all the key points somehow covered. AT that moment, stop and get up. Put on your coat. Go shoot some hoops, take a walk, knit an afghan (the sweater, not the citizen).

While you take a break, your subconscious mind is mulling over everything you’ve come across. Absorbing. Sorting. Editing.

The next morning, put the pile of stuff in a box and get it out of your sight. Everything happens now inside your pile of notes. Re-read all the material. Twice.

Take the points that stand out and re-write them on a fresh page. Some things will stand out. Others will strike you as complete garbage. Distill and polish. Narrow. If you need to accelerate the process, mail or e-mail the notes to a trusted (and patient) friend to read.

If you try this technique and you’re STILL stuck for ideas by the time you reach the bottom of the stack, you might consider buying yourself a push broom. Or running for public office.

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What’s The “Big Idea?”

bulb.png What’s the single toughest secret you’ll ever learn, if you hope to blow the doors off the world of writing sales copy?

For all the clever metaphors you’ll ever come up with, for all the phrases and images, the formatting breakthroughs, the clever taglines, and everything else… nothing will pack more career-building punch for a copywriter… than mastering the art of coming up with “big ideas.”

By no coincidence, that alone could take you a lifetime of writing.

Great copywriter and originator of the “big idea” idea himself, David Ogilvy, once claimed that he came up with only about 20 so-called “big ideas” in his entire career. And yet, that was enough to more than create his fame and fortune.

So what does a “big idea” look like? I’ve seen many try to define it.

Here’s one more list of filters to add to your collection…

* Big Ideas Have Instant Appeal:

Have you ever had a ‘gut’ feeling about a person? Have you ever asked a long-married couple when they decided to get married, only to find out they ‘just knew’ after just meeting each other?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink,” calls it ‘thin-slicing.’ And it’s what we do, naturally, whenever we encounter something new.

Your target audience will do it too. Which is why you have ZERO luxury for trying to convey a complex idea in that very first instant your copy flashes them in the face.

They’ll “thin-slice” you, as a reflex.

They’ll compress all their judgment about whether to read on into that moment. If you don’t manage to win them over, in milliseconds, say hello to the trashcan.

So, the Big Idea is an idea that can be sorted, absorbed, and understood instantaneously. Which is why cleverness and complexity in advertising can be so dangerous for even the most skilled of copy wordsmiths.

* Big Ideas are Tightly Expressed:

Just because an idea has impact, doesn’t mean it has to be dense. In fact, the opposite is the idea. The more insightful the idea, the tighter you can usually sum it up.

And you should aim to do exactly that. Preferably in 8 words or less. And as early as possible, so that your reader knows as soon as possible what you’re getting at.

* Big Ideas Have Momentum:

Gladwell has another more famous book that I’m sure you’ve read, “The Tipping Point.” He starts off talking about a suede shoe.

It was big in the ’70s, and then disappeared. Suddenly, over 20 years later, it came back with a vengeance. First, on the hip street corners of Manhattan’s East Village. Then across town… uptown… then to young and artsy areas in cities across the U.S. Why?

Nobody, even the shoemaker, could tell.

Only that an idea started to build. It spread. By the time everyone noticed, it suddenly petered out again. It was too late. The trend had come and gone, elusive to all who’d tried to do anything but hang on for the ride.

Ideas are like that.

They catch on, they build, and then, just when you least expect it, they can recede out of popularity again. The best marketer is plugged in enough to see the swell of the wave coming, before it crests.

* Big Ideas Are Timely:

Related to the idea of momentum is the timeliness of an idea, especially when you’re selling information products. How so?

I write almost exclusively, these days, for financial products. My best promos tend to hinge on what’s happening in the markets.

For example, when oil sold at $147 per barrel, anything I wrote about oil and energy related investment products was almost a sure bet to do well.

In the mid 1990s, the market’s mind was elsewhere. You couldn’t say anything about investing without talking about the Internet, telecoms, or biotech.

When that market crashed in 2000, the tide of desire had shifted over night. Trying to write tech pitches suddenly became about as tough as talking a tabby into taking a dip in a hot tub.

Of course, the greatest asset you get by finding the timeliest ideas is that timeliness brings with a sense of urgency to your message. Maybe as a warning. Maybe as an unfolding opportunity.

But either way, you’re much better off when you’ve got that element to whatever you’re writing.

* Big Ideas Are Original:

Ideas feel biggest when you’re among the first to deliver the message. When you’re playing catch up to everyone else, not so much.

Even an idea that’s already current, already popular, and already talked about… gains new life when you can make it even more ‘new,’ simply by finding the extra twist.

This is why headlines built on “secrets” are so effective. We naturally want to read the story nobody else is telling.

The new angle… the new information… the overlooked discovery… there are many ways to do this. All of them, almost always, are buried in the unique details of the story you’re telling.

* Big Ideas Have Depth:

Yep, I said that ideas need to be simply and clearly expressed. But can you have clarity and substance, even in a short line?

Absolutely, you can.

When we say that Big Ideas need “depth” what we mean is richness and life-altering impact. Ask yourself; does the Idea suggest major change ahead? Is it something that will shock, awaken, or fascinate your reader?

If not, why would the reader want to read on? And why would you want to get the success of that letter… or your business… on something that thin?

* Big Ideas Are Emotionally Stirring:

Too often, we mistake the preponderance of proof behind an Idea as all the “Bigness” we need for selling.

With smugness, we script any old headline, knowing it’s just a set up to hit the reader with blazing, double guns of the most rock-solid bullet points and factoids you’ve ever seen.

Sure, proofs matter in persuasion.

But, in the end, the one thing that makes one Big Idea compelling beyond any other, is it’s ability to sneak behind that locked door of the mind, where the emotional reasoning resides.

It must make a connection with that core, unspoken, and perhaps unrecognized place where the reader’s heart really resides.

Are there other ways to know if you’ve got your mitts on a “big idea” or not? Absolutely, there are. But this is a pretty good start. Try putting your next piece of copy through these paces and see for yourself.

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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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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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The Curse of the Modern Age

3DD92E8C-7CDE-4F5A-8C69-C3B6EA13D930.jpg “For a list of the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” says Alice Kahn, “please press three.”

I’m sure you know what she’s talking about.

And even if you don’t, let me ask you this: How often do you, you know, do “it?” Maybe once in the morning… and again in the afternoon?

I’ll bet. Or maybe you like to do “it” just before lunch… or just after lunch… or before and after and during? That wouldn’t surprise me either.

And then there’s your coffee break… what else are you going to do while waiting for a pot to brew? Not to mention just before meetings… or during meetings… and as soon as one ends.

Yep, you do “it” all the time. You just can’t stop yourself. Sadly, you’re not alone. Because the rest of us probably do “it” too often too.

Of course, I’m talking about checking your email… your tweets… your texts… and your Facebook alerts.

Not so long ago, it was a non-issue. Now every computer in the world seems to ding all day with new message alerts. And if not the computers, it’s the cell-phones. Or even iPods and iPads, since they connect too.

It’s everywhere.

You can even log in on your way to the bathroom… or IN the bathroom… (please tell me you’re not reading this in a stall).

And how about that quick download before dinner… or during dinner… or just before drifting off to sleep?

How about in the elevator… at a stop light… or in motion. Maybe even over the shoulder of your loved one, during a warm but, let’s be honest, not so time-efficient embrace.

If any six of the scenarios above sound familiar… or if you’ve wondered if a Ziploc bag could protect your iPad in the shower… you might have a problem. And you wouldn’t be alone again, you wouldn’t be alone. Or so says Matt Richtel, a tech-writer for the New York Times.

Maybe this comes to you as no surprise.

This is, after all, the age of high tech multi-tasking. Or is it? Not according to a handful of studies cited in one of Richtel’s recent articles.

And if you’re wondering why you feel busy all the time but you don’t get anything done — this might be the reason why.

In short, our brains just aren’t built for the perpetually “plugged in” lifestyle. It may, in fact, be costing you.

Now hang on there, cupcake.

Yes, I DO realize the irony.

After all, I’m a direct response copywriter. My bread and butter relies on people opening messages, including email. And yes, I also write an e-letter, which is delivered by email and in which this article originally appeared (sign up in the box to the right).

But between you and me, have you noticed your relationship changing at all with your inbox? Mine certainly has.

Case in point, in the beginning days of Compuserve, I could barely get enough. I too was a serial email reader. I must have hit the “get mail” button a dozen times a day, eager for contact.

Not so much anymore.

I now have, for example, 778 emails sitting waiting for an answer. Some are dated from last summer. I want to answer them. I feel compelled to answer them.

But I won’t. I’ve even actively decided not to.

Why?

Like anything, it’s complicated.

I recently heard a radio host sum up at least one part of the problemlike this: each email is a moment on someone else’s agenda. Tell me this, answer me that, find and send me this info.

How true.

And yet, she said, she can’t resist knowing if anything new has come in. So she checks — just for a second — and finds herself lost, an hour or more later.

Sound familiar?

I don’t want that. I can’t afford that. So I stay away. These days, much as I want to, I try not to start checking email until after 4 pm… 3 pm if I’m feeling weak. Because it’s the only way.

How about you?

I ask because I know what it is to be writing, like you’re aspiring to do. And whether it’s novels or sales copy, it’s the same.

You’re either in the zone… or you’re not.

When you’re in it, you know. Because that’s when even a five alarm fire would have a tough time getting you to move from your chair or stop what you’re doing.

I’m sure you “get” the feeling. So, you might still be asking… how did we get so hooked on email and tweets and Facebook and the rest in the first place, especially when the cost to productivity is so obvious?

Say California researchers, the reason you have such a tough time stopping yourself from checking your email or whatever other inputs you’ve got going is simple.

It’s because it delivers dopamine “squirts” to your brain. You get hooked, it turns out, to that series of tiny excitements as one email after another rolls in.

Not unlike the smoker taking his first puff after a long international flight… or a drinker getting a martini after a long day in the salt mines.

It’s a joy to get the jolt, over and over again. And without it, you learn to feel perpetually bored. But it’s a bigger issue now than ever, says Richtel.

Today, we’re hit with three times as much daily media as we were in the 1960s. What’s more, your average computer user visits 40 web pages per day.

Think about that.

We email colleagues at the next desk. We tweet our insights to friends, then meet up with nothing to talk about. We bask in the glow of unending online Facebook reunions, without actually seeing the people we’re “talking” to for years on end.

It’s all got its merits.

Business-wise, it’s been amazing. Many a direct-response company has been saved thanks to new media. Some have learned how to turn it into $100s of millions per year. And I’m happy to be one of the beneficiaries.

But what’s it tell you when even the Pope feels like it’s time to weigh in? Here’s what he told the NYT:

“Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world…

“In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

(Intrigued? You can check out Papal (no, I didn’t mean to write “Paypal”) proclamations like this one in eight languages, courtesy of the Vatican’s iPhone app. I kid you not.)

But addiction and virtual loneliness are just the beginning of the problem. Even bigger, in my opinion, is the illusion of productivity that goes with all this message fueled effort.

It gives us the illusion, yes, that we’re getting lots done. We are, if the email feeds are to believed, multi-tasking our way through lots of things that demand our attention, all at once.

The document feedback, the afternoon call, the kid’s b-day party… when you bang out a message on each in under a few minutes, you feel like you’re changing the world.

But multi-tasking, says Richtel’s research for his article, is bunk. An illusion. If you think you’re good at it, he suggests, there’s a likelihood you’re kidding yourself.

How so?

First, let me freely admit, I’m not a multi-tasker at all. I never have been. Walk and chew gum? I’m lucky I get through breakfast without falling out of my chair.

Without 100% focus, I can’t work.

That makes me a pain in the you-know-what to be around during the day. I scowl when I type, I’m told. And look up at interruptions like I’m ready to bite.

And I don’t doubt it. Because I now that once I stop, I’ll need another half hour to get rolling again.

I’ve always felt a little bad about that.

But it turns out, according to what Richtel says is “half a century of proof,” many more of us are that way than I ever imagined.

What’s more, you’re probably better off resigning yourself to focusing on one thing than you realize.

Even though, with your email alerts dinging and your cell-phone vibrating, it doesn’t always feel that way.

When you multi-task, says a particular set of scientists from the University of San Diego, it might feel like you’re doing a lot at once.

But what you’re actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks. And most likely, you’re not doing it well.

Think cocktail party and trying to register two conversations simultaneously… think airline pilot tweeting to his girlfriend during a landing… think surgeon calling the deli for a roast-beef on rye, while he’s wrapping up a brain operation.

If we’re paying attention to one process, say the tests, our brains are hard-wired to ignore everything else. Even if only for microseconds at a time.

So what, if we get it done, right?

I know one guy who writes with the TV on, he says. And he’s good. I know others who keep IM and email windows open and cell phones within reach. And they all still earn a good living.

But you have to wonder, how much better would they do without the willing distractions? Maybe a lot better, if these findings are right.

In fact, the research even shows that those that cling their multi-tasking beliefs end up being SLOWER in tests than the single-minded simpletons, who score better at both noticing small details and juggling when forced to balance between different assignments.

I guess what I’m saying is… wait, hang on a sec… I just got an email… this is good… ha… I’ll be right back, I swear…

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