How One Big Idea Beats Lots of Small Ones

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“Shut up and listen,” I said. I was talking to Michael Masterson, the great copywriter, publisher, and best-selling author.

Had I lost my mind? Not at all.

Rather, I was summing up the core idea behind one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

That, in my opinion, is the key idea behind that book. And the fact that it’s so easily defined has a lot to do with its success.

Michael came back with another example… I delivered a third… and the volley went back and forth, until we ran out of ready examples.

It wasn’t a game.

See, Michael and I — along with another brilliant copywriter, Bill Bonner — had just finished running four straight days of an intensive, private copywriting bootcamp.

It happens every year.

We meet in a French country chateau. We drink wine. And we stay up late, playing guitars. During the day, we work on copy.

We had around 25 writers attending. Some with years of experience, others just months. Some had just been hired, weeks earlier.

We rehashed lots of fundamentals. We even came up with a few new breakthrough discoveries, some of which I may — or may not — share with you here in the months ahead.

But over and over, in the classic writing samples we looked at and in the new copy our workshops produced, one thing was abundantly clear: The tighter and more isolated the core idea, the more powerful the result.

Without exception.

One Big Idea, Clearly Expressed

Think about it.

When you have a “great” conversation read a “great” book… or see a “great” documentary… what grabs you? Is it the litany of small details? Or the golden thread that unites them?

More often, for most of us, it’s the latter.

And the more you “get” the core idea behind a story, a speech, a revelation… the more memorable that one core message becomes.

This is just as true in sales copy.

One message, well developed, just has more impact than ads — short or long — that are overloaded with competing ideas.

Don’t believe me?

100 Headlines That Prove The Point

For this article, I decided to go looking for strong ads that featured single secrets, single solutions, and single ideas… to see if that list was as long or longer than one showing a much wider reaching,
more thinly spread approach.

First I looked in a digital “swipe” file I have on my desktop. In there, I have over 200 snapshots of winning direct mail and print ads. Some old, some new.

Overwhelmingly, the theory proved true.

But I had  picked up a lot of these sample ads randomly. Would the theory hold up if I went to a more recognized resource?

Maybe you’ve heard of Victor Schwab.

Advertising Age calls Schwab the “greatest mail- order copywriter of all time” and a pioneer in advertising research.

Nobody, arguably, has ever been a more devoted tester of headlines, layouts, offers, and copy appeals than Schwab.

He was also one of the first copywriters to lay down a persuasion “formula” for sales copy, in 1941. And his classic book, “How to Write a Good Advertisement,” is a must-read staple on the bookshelves of ardent copywriters everywhere.

One of the things you can find in Schwab’s book is a list of what he called the “top 100 headlines.”

It made no sense to scan the list for only single- idea-driven examples. They were the majority, by far.

Instead, I looked for only headlines that looked more like the multiple-idea type. And get this — out of a list of 100 headlines, only 10 were NOT clearly single-idea based.

Something else: Even those 10 multiple-idea ads still clearly had an implied “golden thread” that bound the whole thing together.

Take a look.  And remember, this is the list of headlines that DON’T appear at first to fit the single-idea theme we’re talking about…

  • “Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”
  • “Five Familiar Skin Troubles — Which Do You Want
  • to Overcome?”
  • “Have You These Symptoms of Nerve Exhaustion?”
  • “161 New Ways to a Man’s Heart — In This
  • Fascinating Book for Cooks”
  • “Do You Do Any of These Ten Embarrassing Things?”
  • “Six Types of Investors — Which Group Are You
  • In?”
  • “The Crimes We Commit Against Our Stomachs”
  • “Little Leaks That Keep Men Poor”
  • “67 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer
  • Our Ad a Few Months Ago”
  • Free Book — Tells You 12 Secrets of Better Lawn Care”

Would they have worked even better if each focused on only one thing — rather than a list — right here in the headline? Maybe. But notice that even though they don’t, each clearly points toward a
single, over-arching theme.

Meanwhile, out of the 90 single-idea headlines, just ake a look at how instantly clear and engaging these “core big idea” examples are…

  • “The Secret of Making People Like You”
  • “Is the Life of a Child Worth $1 to You?”
  • “To Men Who Want to Quit Work Someday”
  • “Are You Ever Tongue-Tied at a Party?”
  • “How a New Discovery Made a Plain Girl Beautiful”
  • “Who Else Wants a Screen Star Figure?”
  • “You Can Laugh at Money Worries — If You Follow This Simple Plan”
  • “When Doctors Feel Rotten This is What They Do”
  • “How I Improved My Memory in One Evening”
  • “Discover the Fortune That Lies Hidden In Your
  • Salary”
  • “How I Made a Fortune with a ‘Fool Idea'”
  • “Have You a ‘Worry’ Stock?”

Here’s an added benefit: Starting off in the headline with just one, simple idea makes writing the rest of the sales letter easier..

How so?

Finding the core idea, of course, is the hard part. It has to be precise, not scattershot. You have to know your audience and know them well. Or you risk missing your target completely.

But hone in on the right promise, the right hook, the right singular theme at the start… and writing the sales copy that supports it underneath suddenly gets easier.

You know where you’re headed. You know which tangents to look out for. And you know, too, when you’re ready to wrap up your pitch… because you’ll know when you’ve said all you need to say.

I think back to my own promos and it’s true. Those that worked best were the most focused on one message. Those that flopped were those that wandered. I’ll bet the same is true for you.

Last modified: September 25, 2017

5 Responses to " How One Big Idea Beats Lots of Small Ones "

  1. Carole says:

    I think this is just what I needed!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. jackforde says:

    You’re very welcome… and I hope you’re coming to Delray Beach in November for the Early to Rise bootcame (earlytorise.com). I’m going to give a presentation on exactly this topic. Thanks for your post!

  3. Lynn Wiley says:

    This is the best explanation and “how-to” I’ve found after Googling “Big Idea”–a concept that I found hazy at best before this find.
    Thank you so much,
    Lynn

  4. jackforde says:

    Thanks right back, Lynn… quite a compliment!

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