Tagged: copywriting

A Direct-Mail Designer’s Open Letter (to Copywriters)

youvegotmail.pngWe write plenty here about writing copy, but not so much about how it should look when it hits the mail (or the web).

Lucky for us, direct-mail designer Carrie Scherpelz has stepped up to put it to us straight.

Carrie, take it away…

An Open Letter to Copywriters
(From a Direct-mail Designer)

by Carrie Scherpelz

For most of my thirty years as a graphic designer, I had observed that designers rather than copywriters took the lead on creative projects. That changed about eight years ago. At the time, I was an art director at American Girl magazine.

I was asked to collaborate with a well-known national copywriter on a direct mail promotion for American Girl. The copy for the promotion had been written, and my job was to design print-ready components for a 6×9 package based on the writer’s detailed sketches. Hmmm, I thought, what an odd way of working. The designer always does the drawing, not the writer . . .

Game for this unusual challenge, I started the project in my usual way by creating eye-catching designs based on the sketches and sending pdf concepts off to Texas for the copywriter to review. When he responded with his feedback, I began to learn that good direct mail design is different from what most designers do.

Some of my design elements got in the way of the message, I was told. Directed by the writer, I made changes that stripped down the design.

He specified new colors that he said got better results. (How did he know that?!) I was required to use Courier as the letter font, not Times New Roman. He didn’t want me to add graphics or photos to the letter either. (Amazing! I was sure that no one in the world would read a boring 4-page letter with no graphic relief.)

When I balked at the writer’s art direction, I learned that direct mail results are measurable.

Colors and fonts had been tested and found effective. There was no arguing with the arithmetic of response.

Many of my colleagues in design prefer not to work within direct mail’s constraints to their creativity.

Perversely, I found that I loved direct mail design. Maybe it was my competitive side kicking in: I wanted to beat the control. Or maybe it was because I have always been fascinated with human behavior and what motivates people to take action.

Or not.

Maybe I just like direct mail design because I love to read and write. I like to think about a writer’s copy and then design a clear and compelling format for it. Unfortunately many designers pay little attention to words and readability.

A block of copy is sometimes treated as just one more graphic element to place within the stylish, distinctive design of the piece.

As a result, colors and patterns often compete with the copy, confusing and even obscuring the message. Branding can also get in the way of presenting a direct mail offer. I try to avoid these pitfalls and do my best as a designer to sell the copy.

Someone once said, “Great design may save bad copy, but bad design will destroy the most brilliant copy.” As a designer, I find good copywriters to be very controlling.

And rightfully so.

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Better Than Money

beach worker.png “We must not be free because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

– William Faulkner

My friend Paul Hollingshead is pretty smart fella.

He recently wrote a piece that shared the math on this career path we’ve chosen, direct response copywriting.

In case you don’t know how you got here — and some don’t — let’s backtrack a bit: copywriting means writing writing ad copy. The headlines. The print ads you see. Billboards. TV ads. And sales letters.

In the role that Paul and I and many others play, we’re talking most of all about the sales letters. Really long ones, that can range 8… 16… even 24 pages or longer.

These days, we’re talking more specifically about sales letters on the Internet. Usually posted to a website or read off in “video” form, with text on screen.

I’m almost sure you’ve seen these ads. Maybe you’ve even responded to a few of them. But what happens on the other side of the screen? As Paul spelled out, people like us get paid to write those ads. And we often get paid pretty well.

Two weeks of writing or maybe three can bring you, the writer, a $10,000 fee. Throw in another two or three weeks of good sales, and you could see $30,000 in royalties. That’s a pretty tidy sum — $40,000 — for about a month of work and waiting.

That’s not unprecedented. For some us, it’s the norm or even a slow return. At the very top, it would be downright depressing. I’ve seen writers make twice that in a month. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen a handful do that much in a week.

In short, Paul’s right. This gig can pay.

But the writing students I meet are so focused on the income potential, I don’t get asked often enough about other benefits. Since you can start enjoying these benefits even before you hit the big time — and perhaps if you never do — let’s talk about them now.

One of the big ones is, of course, the freedom. I used to work in an office, on someone else’s schedule. But you really can write copy from anywhere. All you need is a laptop and a Wifi connection. Heck, you could pull off a productive afternoon with a legal pad.

It did take work to get “good,” but once demand for my copy started to go up, I started working from home. Then from London, for a couple months. After that, I spent two months writing in a French farmhouse. Then I fulfilled a dream and moved to a sun-dappled apartment on the best street in the West Village, in New York City.

Since then, I’ve also worked seaside in Greece… under a friend’s grape arbor and in a family gazebo… poolside in Florida and pub-side in Dublin… on a cruise ship… and right now, from a favorite armchair in our apartment, here in Paris.

I didn’t need to put in for vacation time. I didn’t even ask anybody’s permission. I just packed up and went. These days, I bring my family.

When we go on vacation, I just get up a little earlier than they do and work until lunchtime. This way, we can take two or three vacations a year. Sometimes more.

Honestly, I have to remind myself now NOT to work when we go away.

What about the client? I take calls on Skype. We email. Sometimes I combine a vacation with an onsite visit. Sometimes they even pay for the travel, because I “trade” it for a brainstorming meeting or a mini-seminar.

As long as the work gets done, they’re happy.

You can’t imagine how great this is when you have young kids. Every morning, I walk them to school. Every afternoon, I’m here when they get home. No rush hour or missed family dinners. Even if I have a deadline, I still get to be nearby.

You can’t say that about most office jobs.

You can’t even say it about most jobs in sales. But with my kind of copy career, I don’t need to do cold calls or hit the road, either. One letter gets scaled up to mail worldwide, with results that roll in overnight. I like that too.

Perhaps least obvious to the early writer, though, is the job security.

After you do this awhile, you start to realize that the better you can sell, the more indispensable you become.

Suddenly, you’re the one people look to at meetings. You’re the one they count on. You’re even among those they call first, when any new project comes along.

Why? Because nothing happens in any business, until somebody sells something. By being the copywriter, you become that somebody. It’s that simple.

You would think that in today’s market, with so much of the job characteristics a lot of people look for, that there would be a glut of copywriters out there… fighting for clients.

You might even think that people like me would want to keep new writers out, just to short circuit new competition.

But the truth is, demand for good copywriters has never been higher.

With the Internet, every sales piece reaches out to many more markets. And many more people get to see each ad, more often. New ads need writing, just to replace them.

Meanwhile, many more businesses continue to crop up online. The industry is constantly looking for new “talent” to fill the void.

So why not be that talent, yes?

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“They Laughed When I Stopped Shaving…”

My Petit Mo.jpg What’s this on my lip? Nothing less than the unfettered whiskers of a man determined (if not a little deranged).

Yep. For the month of November, I’ve pledged — along with the other men in our family and hundreds of thousands of others worldwide — to grow a “mo.”

In case you don’t know, “mo” is slang in Australia for a mustache.

Now, I’ve never been to Australia. But the cause behind this is so good, that doesn’t make a fizzlewob of difference.

See, it turns out, that “mo” growers everywhere… yours truly included… are risking mockery and taking donations, all in the name of research in the fight against prostate cancer.

Sure, there are plenty of other worthy causes.

But this one sits close to home.

One out of every six men will get diagnosed with prostate cancer. One of them is my father, who right now is battling the later stages of this disease.

Nonetheless, he’s rallied to grow a November “mo” of his own (“It’s like grass,” says my four-year old daughter).

And he’s inspired us to get in on the cause too.

There’s nothing saying you can’t also play along.

Just go here and either join up or donate…

http://us.movember.com/mospace/959346/

Hope to see your name on the list!

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Which Sells Best, Stories or Stats?

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“Simplicity is the peak of civilization.”
– Jessie Sampter

Do this: Write down the word “baby.”

Now, how does that word make you feel?

Try it with another baggage-friendly word like “family” or “war.” Or any other phrase that gets your inner emotional stew simmering.

Done? Good. No, dear reader, you haven’t stumbled into a 1970’s sensitivity training group.

There will be no hugs here. And no massaging your chakras (I mean, really… who does that in public?)

Rather, I’m just trying to warm you up for today’s issue. See, I’m still reading that book I mentioned, “Made to Stick.” (Okay — listening to it as an audio book, during the morning run. But in print or audio, I recommend you get a copy too.)
And this morning, the book gave me a shocker worth sharing.

So now that I’ve got you “primed” to receive (I’ll explain what I mean in just a second, let’s begin…

Which Works Best, Stats or Stories?

Carnegie-Mellon, says the book, did a study. They invited participants in to take a survey. The topic wasn’t important — something about tech products — but what mattered was the small payout. Each participant got paid with five $1 bills. They also got an unexpected letter and an empty envelope. The letter asked for donations for an international charity called “Save the Children.” But different groups got different letters.

One letter dripped with grim statistics. In one African country, it said, 3.2 million stand on the brink of starvation. In another, 2.4 million have no easy access to clean water. In a third, almost 4 million need emergency shelter. Each problem was gigantic and serious.

The second letter had only a story. “Rokia,” it said, “is a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. She’s desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.”

Which worked better?

Now, dear reader, I know your momma raised no dummies. You’re going to tell me that the Rokia letter cleaned up. And you’d be right.

On average, Rokia’s letter took in $2.38 in donations from the test group. The stat-soaked letter took in only an average of $1.14.
But that’s not the big surprise, is it? No, of course not. (What kind of storyteller do you think I am, after all?)

See, the study didn’t stop there…

How Less Really Can Mean a Lot More

The researchers then called in a third group. You’ll get paid for taking this survey, they said again.

Only this time, instead of giving the participants only one letter with their cash — everybody got both the story AND the stats together.

Great, you might say.

Heart AND head. A real one-two punch. Wouldn’t that net you both the bleeding hearts and the brainiacs, all in one sweep?

As it turns out, no.

Not only did combining both approaches fail to gas up the giving engines… it doused the pitch-power of the story-only approach with ice water.

The combo group, on average, gave almost a dollar LESS than the story-only group alone.

Just $1.43.

Isn’t that amazing?

I thought so.

But even more amazing was the last part of the experiment. This time, just to make sure of their conclusion, the researchers invited in a fourth group.

This time everybody would only get the stronger Rokia letter. But beforehand, they would complete an exercise.

Half the group would finish some simple math problems. The other half would answer a word challenge like the one I gave you at the start of this issue: Give word, write down feelings.

What happened?

Incredibly, the group that got “primed” with the emotional exercise gave an almost equal $2.34… but the analytically “primed” group AGAIN gave less, for an average of just $1.26.

These were unrelated calculations. But somehow just putting on a thinking cap was working like one of those tinfoil hats that crackpots wear to block out alien mind-reading waves (I’ve got to get me one of those).

Nearest the researchers could figure is that, while analytical thinking can shore up beliefs or activate a reader’s capacity for focus, it actually stymies action.

To get someone to act, they need to go beyond beliefs to the feelings they HOLD about those beliefs. Feelings inspire action.

And I don’t just mean that in the “touchy-feely let’s all hug a kitten and light a vanilla candle” kind of way. All persuasion works best when it focuses most on core emotions, not cerebral abstractions.
I know this charity, “Save the Children,” pretty well by the way. My wife and I have a Danish friend who works for them.

She’s a talented photographer.

Whenever there’s a crisis, her boss dips into the funds and puts our friend and her camera on a plane.
Burned out post-war zones, post-tsunami and typhoon disaster areas, dirt poor African villages — she’s been there, capturing a personal, eyewitness view.

Why?

Because in the charities well-tested experience, those individual on-the-scene images raise more money than a boatload of shocking statistics ever could.

I know that I’m going to try to work more of the “story of one” effect into my future promos. Maybe you should too.

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How to Write in Your Sleep

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

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

A badge of honor worth wearing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try this.

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

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

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When Clichés Work “Like Gangbusters”

cliche pic.png I joked in an issue of my e-letter about writing “good,” and got a note from a reader soon after that said…

“So there I was reading my favorite newsletter writer and I come across, ‘For career success: lather, rinse, repeat.’ A cliche!

“Say it ain’t so. You’re beyond trite phrases and careless writing. So please don’t do it again. I can’t stand to be disillusioned.”

In my defense, this was my reply…

“Me, beyond trite phrases? Never!

“I admit that I agree — we need yet another hackneyed piece of writing like we need a hole in the head. There’s nothing worse, after all, than phrases as worn out as an old shoe. As writer and grammarian extraordinaire, William Safire, once said, ‘last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.’

“But please, when it comes to the ‘rules’ on using cliches, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, shall we? That is to say, with this knee-jerk critique, I fear you might be barking up the wrong tree.

“After all, while I know it’s never too late to learn something new about writing (better late than never, I always say) the tradition of using cliches in copy is about as old as dirt and not always the refuge of the village idiot, as you make it seem.

“In short, never say never.

“Because sometimes, frankly, a well-worn cliche can actually be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of a piece and you want to convey an idea both quickly and maybe with a little irony.

“To put it simply, the point of the article is to look at new challenges with innocence and new ideas, rather than falling back on the tried and true… and shopworn.  With the irony here being, that’s a piece of advice we’ll have to return to over a lifetime of writing, much in the same way a dog returns to his own vomit. It is an  insight that can only come from, well, experience.

“It is what it is.”

To which my reader wisely replied, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And so it is. Except when it isn’t. But that’s for another time.

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How to Tell if You’re a “Natural Born” Copywriter

friendly hand.pngA personal confession: I don’t just like being a copywriter. I also happen to like copywriters in general. As people, I mean. Why?

Before you accuse me of being too kind to my own, consider.

How many copywriters do you know that seem extra welcoming and easy-going, as well as willing to answer questions and offer advice?

I know more than I can count.

What’s more, speak with them once, and they’ll usually remember what you’ve talked about. Introduce somebody and they’ll be happy to shake hands. In restaurants, they almost never snarl at a waiter. And I don’t know a single one among them who would ever kick a dog.

Every profession demands or at least cultivates certain character trains. Why should the copywriting field be any different?

For instance, I’ve found almost across the board that those colleagues of mine who happen to have those qualities… also seem to do better over the long run as copywriters.

Why? Simply because you need that insight into other people and what they’re thinking about to write all the best kinds of copy.

There’s a dark side to the typical copywriter personality, of course. At least in direct response, everything we do is measured to the penny. It either works or it doesn’t. And everybody notices, either way.

We’re hired, fired, and respected based almost entirely on performance. That can make one more than a little self-conscious. Even defensive and arrogant. In a debate, we can also be stubborn — simply because we spend so many working hours piling up proofs to back our claims.

What else have I noticed about copywriting types?

I’ve yet to meet a good copywriter who doesn’t have a good sense of humor, even though humor is something so rarely used — at least overtly — in direct-response sales writing.

And not just a passion for jokes. “It’s dry,” says my wife. We’re also observant. But sometimes, observant to a fault. That is, we can get caught up in subsets of details… while even bigger trends and events blow right past us, simply because they exist outside of whatever we’re focused on at the time.

Most copywriters I know also read widely. Some read history books, others read blockbusters, still more are sponges for trade journals, news clips, blogs, and popular magazines.

We like movies. And music.

In fact, we’re generally drawn to popular culture, even more than most, because it’s yet another way to soak up what our target markets are talking about.

Strangely, a lot of copywriters I’ve talked to don’t watch much TV, even though that flies in the face of what I’ve just said. Why?

Again, I can’t say for sure. But I can guess. TV eats up time, but gives back little in exchange. It’s also addictive. And that’s something else about copywriters. Like a lot of other writers, we can have slightly addictive or compulsive personalities.

Not necessarily the usual compulsions, either.

For instance, a lot of the copywriters I know are collectors. Of everything from puns and trivia… to chateaus and high-priced automobiles. For me, there was awhile there that I couldn’t help buying cheap used guitars. Until I acquired a few nice ones.

Which is another thing… I don’t know why, but easily 8 out of every 10 copywriters I know seem to play an instrument. And more often than not, that instrument is the guitar.

Not all of us are good, mind you. But we at least appreciate music. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve sat past 2 am, muddling my way through Dylan and Stones covers with fellow writers.

Copywriters are also a curious bunch.

By that I mean, we tend to be especially inquisitive. About everything. Even those things we’ll never write about.

David Ogilvy once said that curiosity was the key trait he looked for when hiring a writer. Be warned, if you don’t like asking questions, this might not be the field for you.

We’re storytellers. In print or conversation, copywriters love to default to the story form. Sometimes, more often than our listeners can stand.

The same goes for analogies.

We make — or should I say test — a lot of them. Analogy lies close to the core of creativity. A good analogy can make a complex idea sound simple. It can make an unfamiliar idea feel like an old friend. That doesn’t mean we always get the analogy right. But you can bet that when we don’t, we’ll try again.

A handful of the copywriters I know are doodlers or artists, yours truly included. That’s not a universal trait in this industry. But common enough to make it worth mentioning.

I think it’s because copywriting demands an especially strong mix of both left and right brain thinking. During the research mode, you’re all strategy and calculation. But then you need to jump to the other side of the divide, where your passion for the rhythm of word-craft resides.

Not everybody can do both.

Copywriters can be extroverted, but most that I know are not. On the other hand, we rarely shy away from a debate. We’ve got deeply felt opinions on everything, including a few things we don’t know much about… yet.

This list could go on.

But you more than get the picture.

There’s plenty about this trade that can be taught. But even the best techniques and tools aren’t worth much unless you’ve got the right kind of knack for this career in the first place. I’d be cheating you if I told you otherwise.

But let’s say you’re not at all like the person I’ve just described, but you still want to find your footing in this profession? No worries. Just like everything else, there’s always the option to simply do your thing and let the market decide.

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“Need to Tell” vs. “Want to Tell”

In marketing copy, “need to know” is the info your prospect has to hear to help him have a better life and, you hope, to decide to buy.

Perversely though, it’s often the “want-to-know” info that has more pulling power.

That is, you’re your prospect has emotional interests that drive him toward things that may not be essential to his well being, but that he wants to know more about anyway.

Put your finger on the latter and you’ve got an extra edge when formulating your pitch

On the writer’s side of the fence, however, it occurs to me there’s another dynamic dilemma, similar in name but not in nature. It’s the difference between “need to TELL” information and “want to TELL” information.

It goes like this…

“Need to tell” describes what the copywriter can’t leave out of the copy. Because without it, the message just ain’t compelling enough to seal the deal. So what’s “want to tell?”

It’s the stuff that the copywriter WANTS to jam into the sales copy somewhere… but might not need to. By this, I mean the jokes and puns, the clever subheads and lengthy anecdotes, the extra trivia… typically the kind of extras that satisfy the writer’s ego, but don’t do much for the reader.

Dumping a gut full of “want to tell” copy onto the page can feel cathartic.

It can make you feel smart. It can make you sound funny or witty or clever. But it’s no way to sell.

How do you know when you’re “over-telling?” Take a red pen (or your delete key) and go back over the copy, reading it aloud. Look at it visually on the page too. Are there points where you hear or see yourself making the same case over and over again? How about your proof of the main message in the headline?

Usually, three strong proof sections will do the trick. Much more than that and you’re just showing off. Take a look at what you’re promising too. Offers with lots of things to give the prospect can be fine, just make sure you’re not over-compensating by throwing in the kitchen sink. At a certain point, that can make your product seem cheap rather than valuable.

Look too for personal anecdotes, inside jokes and puns, and passages jammed full of exclamation points or florid, hyped-up descriptions. Copy can be aggressive and excited and still work very well. Sometimes extremely well. But not when there’s nothing substantial under the fluff. These sections can also go.

The bottom line is, you know when you’re working hard to get something into the copy because you “just like it” vs. when you know that the copy will fail if that particular bit isn’t included. Arm yourself with the Hemingway principle: “When in doubt, cut it out.”

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Why Only Some People Are “Creative”

homer.jpg On D-Day, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops pulled off the largest invasion in history, forcing their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Strategy was key. So was equipment.

But the real mettle of the moment came from the soldiers staging the invasion.

This included, naturally, pilots who had to navigate a sky thick with German anti-aircraft fire.

Long before the invasion, military strategists knew this would happen. They also knew they needed top-notch fliers.

At first, they tried using intelligence tests to pick candidates. But intelligence alone as an indicator turned out to be useless in determining which pilots would be inventive enough, in a tight situation, not just to save themselves but also to save their airplanes.

Creative cognitive ability, it turned out, was only partly connected with smarts. Around the same time, a psychologist from the University of Southern California identified the crucial difference between convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is the kind we’re used to on I.Q. tests and in math and science textbooks. It’s a way to find the single, logical, and usually most orthodox solution to a problem.

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more widely cast. It searches many routes, finds many solutions, and then might settle on one or the other depending on what the situation dictates.

The best fighter pilots, not so surprisingly, were those more adept at divergent thinking. When the context required, creative survival tactics prevailed.

So if it’s not IQ that matters, what is it that makes one person a convergent thinker and another person a divergent or more creative thinker?

Another study reported in Scientific American relates the story of a 43-year old art teacher in San Francisco. For most of her life, she had been a painter. She even took a job teaching art later in life.

But suddenly, she could no longer do her job. Lesson plans confused her. She couldn’t grade projects. When she could no longer remember her student’s names, she retired and took her troubles to a neurologist.

He did a brain scan and found dementia damage to her frontal and temporal lobes, mostly on the left side of her brain.

The teacher gradually lost some speech abilities. She also lost some control of herself in social situations, both of which are common with this kind of neuron damage.

But something else happened.

As her inhibitions in public waned, her creative powers grew. Her art grew more prolific, emotional, and expressive.

The neurologist dug deep into research on the disorder and found others who also had new bursts of creativity after the damage had set in, even in some who had never before been artistic or considered themselves “creative” before.

What’s this mean? No, I’m not saying that a little brain damage is something to hope for if you want to up your creativity.

But I’m sure you heard, 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 be 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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#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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