Category: Writing Process

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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Beat the Natural Limit on Creativity

brainhalvesI’m sure, by now, you’ve heard that there are “right-brained” and “left-brained” people. The idea is that “left-brained” people are the type you’d expect to find at, say, your accounting firm’s Christmas party.

“Right-brained” people, on the other hand, tend to be more artistic and possibly a little eccentric or scattered. Like, say, the bulk of ex-poets and actors working the tables at your local coffee shop.

Like most generalizations, this isn’t quite right.

While many of us have a bias in either creative or rational powers, the fact is that most people have both halves of their brain kicking into gear most of the time.

On the left-side, we’re processing details and performing convergent thinking. On the right side, we’re applying abstract associations between details, the work of divergent thinking.

Stroke patients who lose power on the left side of their brains tend to lose logic and language, but may suddenly become more creative. Patients who suffer right-side damage may seem creative but also might seem more uninhibited or scattered.

The good news is that both left and right brain can work together to produce a result that’s both logical AND creative.

Take Einstein.

Certainly, he had incredible powers of logic and process. He did the math, just as it had been done before he came along. But he also made the leap to creativity, finding new mathematical associations nobody else had recognized before.

Here’s the better news…

While few of us want a touch of neuron damage… and almost none of us, surely, were born an Einstein…

There actually ARE ways you can increase your creative function. And many of them simply have to do with channeling the filtering function of your left-brain.

One very simple way is just to keep reminding yourself to approach most moments in your life with curiosity.

Another is to consistently reset your attitudes toward convention. That is, simply repeat to yourself that the way things have always been done is not necessarily the way the always have to be done.

There there’s what researchers call “detail fermentation.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “do your homework.” It’s also the explanation I typically give when I tell people I don’t believe in “writer’s block.”

That is, when you fill your mind with facts and data and details relevant to the ideas you’re trying to create, the more likely you are to succeed at creating them.

Somehow, satisfying the left brain’s hunger for logic and process first… allows it to relax and let the right brain step in to find the overall creative associations between those details.

Einstein did this while searching for “E=MC2.” For years, he studied not just physics and mathematics, but astronomy and philosophy and other fields too.

So the next time you’re feeling like a failure creatively, before you give up try this tapping into this technique instead: Stop, drop, and study. Dig into the facts and materials you have to work with. Then, and only then, see if the bigger and better ideas come.

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Sales Secrets from a Novel Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dark Side of Testimonial-Driven Sales Copy

cheesyman.png In my experience, testimonials almost always enhance a promo package… except… when they don’t. What might make for a
bad time to use a testimonial?

Most often, when the testimonial itself just plain stinks.

For instance…

When it’s emotionally unsatisfying and vague:
“I found your book very useful.”

When it’s too gushy:
“I love your book! It’s the best one I’ve ever read! The exclamation point on my keyboard is stuck!!!”

When it’s too polished or pretentious:
“We delight in your intrepid and yet profitable handling of territory so treacherous as options investing.”

When you’ve used stock photos instead of real ones:
(Rule of thumb: Most of your customers probably do NOT have bleached teeth or airbrushed faces. And most of them do not wear t-shirts that have been pressed and dry-cleaned before the photo shoot either.)

When they’re a legal risk or just plain fake:
“I’ve secretly used this investment newsletter to pick stocks for years. I’d be working at McDonald’s without it.” – Warren Buffet, Omaha.

Or when the customer seems too embarrassed to sign it:
“I like your stuff, really I do. – Anonymous”

We could go on finding many ways testimonials won’t do what you want them to do. But how about how to make sure you get good testimonials and use the properly?

Here’s a truism based on experience:

Good products, first and foremost, are the better your chances of getting good testimonials. But even then, you need to identify the person on the team that’s got enough passion for the product to cull and archive a strong testimonial file. This could be the product manager, but more likely, they’re getting their best stuff from the front lines. That is, from the people who deal most directly with the customers.

Don’t be afraid to ask customer service if you can look at their letters or if they’ve seen something good. Often the good stuff is buried in letters asking support questions.

If the company is going to do surveys, make sure they leave room for open-ended questions at the end. And if they’ve done surveys already, look for ones where you can follow up to get enthusiastic customers to elaborate. A day of phone calls to buyers can pay off with testimonials you’ll use for years.

If the company corresponds via emails or an online customer forum (and who doesn’t these days?), ask if it’s okay to follow up with buyers electronically. Or better, ask the product manager to follow up, since replies to their requests might sound more natural (customers have a tendency to fancy-up their praise when they find out it’s going to go in a sales letter.)

Bottom line: There’s no way to get good testimonials without applying a little elbow-grease and a little creative harvesting.

That said, copywriting legend John Caples had a tip. Try running a testimonial-gathering contest. Caples liked to give customers a chance to fill in the following line:

“Finish this sentence in 25 words or less: I like (name of product) because…”

And in return, he would offer every participant a small prize.

Here’s another great idea, based on an insight from friend Michael Masterson, over at www.earltytorise.com: “Ask them what their life was like before they got your product… what their life is like now… and, specifically, how your product helped them make that change.”

Good ideas, don’t you think?

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