How One Big Idea Trumps Lots of Small Ones

“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.

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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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Nine Rules For Writing Blogs & Ezines

I’ve written the “Copywriters Roundtable” ezine for many years. I’ve worked with many others who write ezines. And I’ve received ezines galore. What have I learned that’s worth sharing with you?

A lot, I hope.

But there a few things leaped immediately to mind when I first sat down and thought about it. And since it’s  pretty tough these days to find anyone who doesn’t write a blog or an ezine, I figured you might like if shared those ideas with you.

Ready? Here we go…

1) Always remember that your reader is much smarter than you think. Even while educating or informing, never talk down. And never think the readers won’t notice when you haven’t done your homework.

2) Your readers prefer stories to lists of facts. “Everyone likes a story,” said novelist E.M. Forster. We’ve seen this elsewhere in this course, too. You’ll find it a lot easier to hold onto human interest by putting plenty of human interest angles into the articles you’ll write (e.g. marketer Joe Vitale recently ran an article, “How Mark Twain Would Write Online.” He could have just listed points. But instead, he gave his lesson a face we could all identify with.)

3) Your reader respects – and expects – conviction. This point can’t be emphasized enough. The email relationship demands you to take a position. Readers don’t want more information. They can get that anywhere. Instead, they want someone to make a judgment about information so they can know what’s essential and what is not.

4) Your reader expects profundity. Remember what we said about the value of complexity. The deeper you can take your reader, the more you can expand his mind, the greater your editor-reader relationship will be, the more he’ll recommend your ezine to friends (right?). And the longer he’ll stay active on your mailing list (yes?).

5) Trust encourages action. Relationships like the ones we’ve been talking about are built on trust. Earlier in this course we talked about the value of “authenticity.” This is one of those places where it comes into play. The more the reader trusts you, the more genuinely he regards your message, and the more likely he is to take the action you recommend. Including acting on the offers in the promos you attach to the ezine (only if you want to of course… and you DO want to, don’t you?)

6) Your reader expects imperfection. There’s a reason we laugh hardest at comedians who aren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. Showing an occasional weakness actually confirms your strength of character. And gives your writing a personal, human appeal.

7) Your reader expects emotion. Getting personal means getting emotional. But be careful in two ways. First realize that even zealots can only go so far. Be passionate about your position, but not crazed. Second, good writers express the full range of emotions over time (fear, greed, anger, desire, vanity, etc.) You can’t fake this. But don’t suppress it in your ezine copy either.

8) Give both need-to-know AND want-to-know information. No question, the most valuable ezines educate readers. But remember your ezine subscribers will want to be entertained as much as they’ll want to be informed. Think of it like the difference between the college professor who bores listeners at a cocktail party… and the master storyteller who builds a circle of guests around him, all leaning in to hear more.

9) Reinforce the old, introduce the new. When you’re writing an ezine, it’s true you’re almost always “preaching to the choir.” Which means a lot of your ezine copy will appeal to the suspicions, opinions, and principles you and your readers already share. But just as much, you have to make sure you introduce, amplify, and illuminate a new direction for your readers to take.

This last rule is especially important.

By repeating core ideas, you reinforce your reader’s good feelings about your ezine. By saying something new, however, you also provide understanding. And for that your reader will be eternally (one hopes) grateful.

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Is Your Product Trapped in “Commodity Hell?”

shaveI shaved this morning thinking about “commodity hell.”

That’s when a market for a product is so crowded, every product is virtually the same.  Interchangeable with the competition. And the only way to get ahead is to slash prices until the pain of profit loss squeezes either you or those competitors out of the business.

This is not a position, generally, you want to fall into. But it happens. Sometimes, to the (once) best of them. If only because once you succeed on a grand scale, imitation naturally follows. It’s the slippery slope of success.

In an old New Yorker — June 15, 1998 — writer James Surowiecki talks about how one company, Gillette, managed to beat the slide. There are, says the article, two ways companies generally protect themselves. One is via advertising. The bigger your position in the prospect’s psyche, the slower the evolution from market leader to mere commodity.

Gillette did this in the mid ’80s, with a heavy focus on advertising. And it worked. But advertising is basically laurel-padding. And laurels only stay fresh so long. Other razor companies had new products in the pipeline.

So Gillette had to focus on the staple of cutting-edge competition: product innovation.

Enormous research and testing went into binding a substance called “DLC” (for “diamond-like carbon”) to steel. The result was a blade 3-4 times stronger than plain steel that was both thinner and sharper.

Where other razors had two blades, Gillette added three. Engineers had to watch “Terminator 2” to visualize the chrome-coated design. Marketing whittled over 100 different name choices down to four. And then one — the Mach 3.

Gillette sold $2.9 billion worth of blades in a single year. The Mach 3 is far and away the industry leader. I use one. There’s a chance you do too.

When you’ve got a product that’s hard to differentiate, think of the Gillette story.

Is your product newer and better than all the rest? How well is that emphasized in the advertising?

And if the advertising is pulling its weight, is there a way you could innovate or update the product?

Simple thoughts. But if it’s good enough for a giant like Gillette… well, you get the picture.

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Kill Your Television (Here’s Why…)

 

According to research collected by the Nielsen Ratings Service, the Washington Post, and several D.C. research groups… 

* Only 17% of all Americans can name any three members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Meanwhile, 59% of Americans could name all Three Stooges. 

* In the average home, the television is on for 7 hours and 40 minutes per day. 

* From January to September of the 2004 presidential elections, the major candidates spent $342 million on issue-based TV ads. 61% of those ads were centered on attacking the character and track record of the opposing candidate. 

* Those totals ran much higher for the 2008 election.

* The amount of television shown to negatively impact a child’s academic performance is 10 hours per week. 

* The average child between ages 2 and 17, however, watches 19 hours and 40 minutes per week. 

* That’s the equivalent of about 43 straight days of TV-watching per year. 

* 75% of U.S. teenagers know that the Beverly Hills zip code is “90210”; only 25% know the U.S. Constitution was written in Philadelphia. 

* 54% of 4 to 6 year olds report they’d rather watch TV than spend time with their fathers. 

* The brain waves you experience while watching television — almost regardless of what you’re watching at the time — are less active than those you experience while driving on long stretch of straight highway or even while sleeping.

* Your metabolic rate also runs about 16% slower when you’re just sitting there watching TV. No wonder “couch potatoes” are so quick to plump up.

I know this isn’t exactly an issue with a clear correlation to the world of copywriting. The bottom line is, however, we’re better thinkers when we’re less active watchers. Do yourself and the world a favor.  Kill your television.

P.S. Strangely enough, a new study from the University of California shows that Internet use can actually boost your brain power. Especially in people ages 50 and up. Especially if you’re regularly reading sites like this one ; )

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Is Social Networking… TOO Social?

crowdTime magazine did a back-o’-the-napkin calculation.

 Suppose you estimate about five million of these “25 Random Things” messages in circulation in a single week.

 Given 25 details in each note, that’s 125 million random facts making the rounds. Even at just 10 minutes to come up with each list, that’s roughly 800,000 hours of time… probably at work… spent on Facebook.

 Okay, I’ll admit it… I don’t ‘get’ it.

 That is, I get the technology. It’s the appeal that escapes me. Not just Facebook, but MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reunion, and all the rest.

Yes, I know that makes me sound like a curmudgeon.

 Don’t get me wrong. I’m on it, if begrudgingly. Simply because so many friends invited me, it seemed rude to keep on ignoring the invitations.

 I’m now at around 140 or so friends… ranging from my hometown acquaintances to faraway college friends, an ex-girlfriend or two, old work colleagues, grad school friends, and so on.

 I haven’t invited any of them myself. I just accept the connections as they come. And sure, watching the network build… the status updates… the pictures of their kids… the details of their lives after we last saw each other… these really are good things.

 But I can’t help question the opportunity cost.

 For instance, where does everyone find the time to update a status or tap in all those notes? I can barely keep up with my email inbox. Now I’ve got to worry about forgetting to “Facebook” Mom too?

 Plus, the lost privacy. Not that I have anything to hide, but in all the time I’ve had a Facebook account, I’ve never entered a “status” update. Not once.

 Not that I have anything to hide… but some details just don’t feel important enough to share. (“John F. was just typing… and he’s still typing. There he goes again!” Welcome to the endless status loop.)

 Certainly, there’s a massive marketing benefit to this whole social network phenomenon (can you say ‘self-expanding, self-selecting mailing lists?’).

 But… well… let’s just say that when they throw the Facebook friends and family reunion about a dozen years from now… you’ll find me over by the digital punchbowl.

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Why Simple Writing Works Better

Someone once asked me…

Why I would, so often…

(At least in copy)…

Use so many…

One-line sentences…

And so many… well… of these things: “…”

Of course, the above is exaggerated.

But there’s no getting around it…

Many copywriters really do use a lot of one-line paragraphs.

Or even one word sentences.

Why?

Let’s explain using a demonstration.

Let’s imagine you are reading, say, an ezine that you happen to subscribe to. Much like the Copywriter’s Roundtable, in fact. You have noted quietly to yourself, in those deep, dark hours of the night when you lie in bed thanking the heavens for all good things, that something about said e-zine has changed.

For some reason, the e-zine editor has lost the key marked “return” on his keyboard.

Now all his paragraphs are long, even formidable, having gone from one line, two lines, or even the occasional three to five lines, all the way up to ten lines, twelve lines, or God forbid, entire pages of lines with no visual break wherefore you might rest thy eyes and, for heaven’s sake, take a little ocular breather now and again; something essential when you set out to read vast tomes that present weighty ideas, especially those limited — as most text today usually is — to black print on white for the bulk of the message (I’m sure you can imagine; it’s no pleasant affair, and only compounded if the same said author has also lost his key marked “.” as well.

See what’s happened?

My guess is that you had to go back and read that a couple times just to stay with the thread. You may even have gone back once to check whether — yes — it’s all one long and rambling sentence. How easy for you is that to read? I’ll guess again — not very.

Of course, there are lots of writers who live for that long, unwieldy style. Many of them work for law firms and city government. But even a few famous fiction writers love to get away with long sentences, uninterrupted by something so plebian as punctuation or manual line breaks.

Take author Jonathan Coe, who pounded out a 13,955 word sentence in his 2001 novel “The Rotter’s Club.” Then there’s the Polish novel with the translated title, “Gates of Paradise,” which includes a 40,000 word sentence. If you’re really a glutton for punishment, go for the Czech novel that’s one sentence start to finish.

Copywriters — the good ones — just don’t do things that way.

For one, it’s just too tough to read big blocks of text. They look foreboding on the page.

So we opt instead for smaller lines, shorter sentences randomly interspersed, and tight punchy ideas… because they let readers breathe while reading. They also don’t slow readers down. And can even egg a reader onward, because it doesn’t look so difficult, then, to take in “just one more line”… “and one more”… until he’s finished reading the column, the page, the promotion.

The biggest reason, of course, is that writing mostly in short, compact lines mimics the way we speak. And good copy almost always wants to sound as close as possible to the way we speak. To see what I mean, try taping your next conversation. Or read plays and screenplays. Listen to the dialogue in a (good) movie.

In copy, it’s often the same.

When the writing is breezy, uncomplicated and conversational, it also feels more accessible. But when it’s cursed by big fat blocks of text and sentences choked with dependent clauses, long paragraphs that are grammatically perfect but dense, readers can get scared off in a hurry.

To sum up:

* Please DO use line breaks in your copy. And your emails. And your blogs, ezines, plus anything else you want to have that “easy-to-read” feel.

* Please DO use those breaks judiciously. Sometimes with a one-liner. Sometimes with three lines. And yeah, sure, sometimes for a five-line heifer. But rarely more.

* Be sure, too, to vary the blocks so you’ve got some long. Some short. But with no discernible (distracting) predictability.

* Remember how you learned, back in school, to always present your paragraphs as “thesis, body, conclusion?” Yeah, well… don’t do that. Learn it, but then avoid it most of the time. At least in copy.

* Instead, imagine a strand of thread stitched through each paragraph block. Even the one-liner visual breaks. Just as you look to jump that white gap between paragraphs, ask yourself… “Where am I going to put my next stitch?”

* Remember how teacher told you never to start sentences with “but,” “because,” or “and?” Forget that too. At least some of the time. In real conversation, we break this rule often.

* If you’ve ever looked longingly at your “;” key, purge that urge right now. Really. It’s not recommended. And back the dependent clause habit as well. You’re usually better off clipping each sentence at a single idea. Then starting the next sentence where you left off.

* What else? One or two word questions are a nice way, sometimes, to egg your reader onward.

* Beware of format when you make your paragraph breaks. Too many one-liners in succession, for instance, look funny in a two or three column layout. Equally, a three-line paragraph in a letter becomes a very long block when you go to columns. If you can mark up a post-production draft, scan for lines that need re-breaking.

* A freebie: Line-breaks count in headlines and subheads too. Visually, you want one or two lines. Three at most. Usually of equal length, but do try to start new lines with verbs, numbers, or otherwise alluring bits of text. Never with throwaway words.

Sound about right?

Let’s hope so.

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How Sid Sold So Many Suits

monkey in a suit.png Sid and Harry run a tailor shop in New York City.

If you can picture it, Sid is the salesman working the floor, while Harry works over the inventory in the back.

A customer comes in.

“Excuse me sir,” he says to Sid, “how much for this suit?

“Let me ask Harry,” says Sid. “Hey Harry, how much for the black three-button suit?”

“For that beautiful suit?” shouts Harry from the back, “$42.”

Sid, hand cupped to his ear, looks confused for just a second. Then he turns to the customer and say, “Harry says this one is $22.”

The customer, eager to capitalize on the ‘mistake,’ plunks down his money and make a quick exit with his new purchase.

Now, I don’t know if Sid can really hear well or not. There’s even a good chance — let’s say “high likelihood” — that Sid and Harry meant to sell the suit for $22 all along.

But you get the idea.

The story comes our way from master copywriter and multi-millionaire businessman, Michael Masterson, who credits it in turn to persuasion expert Robert Cialdini.

Simply put, Sid’s story demonstrates the “law of contrasts” at work. The law of contrasts is where you underscore the greatness of a product, and offer, something… by comparing it to something else.

In Sid’s case, the $22 price of the suit sure seemed like a deal when compared to the $42 it seemed SUPPOSED to cost.

Suddenly, without really offering a discount or changing any of the details of the original offer… the contrast with a higher price alone makes $22 seem like a great bargain.

Now, of course, Sid and Harry’s story is an old one (who would wear a $22 suit today?). But consider, in the next offer you write, is there a way you could make the simple power of contrasts work for you?

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Scientific Study Asks, “Are You Creative?”

HomerQuick — do any of these apply to you?

 * Ideational Fluency – Someone gives you a word. The more sentences, ideas, and associations you can match to that word, the more likely it is you’re a “creative type.”

 * Variety and Flexibility – Someone gives you an object, say a garden hose. How many different things can you do with it? The more you can think of, the better.

 * Original Problem Solving – Someone presents you with a puzzle or a problem. Beyond the conventional solution, how many other workable but uncommon solutions can you come up with?

 * Elaboration – How far can you carry an idea? That is, once you have it, can you build on it until you can actually carry it out in application?

 * Problem Sensitivity – When someone presents you with a problem, how many challenges related to that problem can you identify? More importantly, can you zero in on the core or most important challenge?

 * Redefinition – Take a look at the same problem. Can you find a way to look at it in a completely different light?

Say researchers published in Scientific American, while their isn’t really a measurable “Creativity Quotient” (C.Q.) that they can pin to any set standard, it just so happens that a lot of creative people share some or all of the traits I just told you about.

How’d you fare?

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Pixar’s Rules For Storytelling – Business Insider

Former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats reveals some behind-the-scenes wisdom.

What makes for a good — no, strike that, great — story?

Nobody knows better than a copywriter how well a well-told story can bust through barriers of resistance. When in doubt on how to start your sales letter, after all, tell a story… right?

 

And if you have young kids — we do — you also know that few have figured out how to tell a story better than the folks over at Pixar. It’s no accident that they’ve got a perfect record with all their releases.

Even their lesser movies (Cars 2, I’m looking at you) were blockbusters.

In this classic post, a Pixar insider reveals the secret. Or, as the case happens to be, secrets — 22 in all.

Check out the original post, over at Business Insider… 

Source: Pixar’s Rules For Storytelling – Business Insider

P.S. You can also pick up an annotated e-book version here.

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