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What the End of the World Can Teach Us about Being Specific

Great PlainImagine it’s late afternoon, Sunday. You are curled beneath an afghan, still bloated from the fried fish you inhaled for lunch. You are sleeping heavily. Until your doorbell erupts.

You shuffle to the front door and open it. An autumn thunderstorm blew through while you slept, bringing frigid air with it. You are surprised to see a young woman in a peasant top and floral pencil skirt standing at your doorstep. She’s drenched to the bone.

“My goodness, are you okay?” you say.

“Hi,” she says, “I’m fine.” She extends her hand. You take it. It is a firm grip. “I’m Madeline,” she says.

She looks over her shoulder. A tall man wearing a black button up oxford and white tie nods from the sidewalk. He’s leaning on an umbrella.

She then looks you square in the eye and says, “Are you ready for the end of the world?”

You shake your head, clear your throat, lean forward. “Eh, pardon me?” You suddenly think you might be dreaming. That your brain is punishing you for having engorged on fried fish.

She doesn’t flinch. “Are you ready for the end of the world? It is coming.”

“Really?” you say. “When?”

She shrugs. “Soon.” She then launches into how you should prepare, even as you shut the door.

In another version of this story she says, “In the next five years.”

You chuckle, belch a wee bit of chardonnay. “Yeah, the way the economy is going, that doesn’t surprise me, ” you say, closing the door. Five years is still ambiguous. It does nothing to dispel doubt.

But it’s this next version of this story that gets your attention. This time she says, “Three months from now. On October 29, 2015. Seven-o-five in the evening. In Munster, Indiana.”

Whether you believe her or not, she’s at least got your attention. At the minimum you’ll ask her how she came to that conclusion. See, it’s not so easy to dismiss someone when they are precise with details.

In what’s known as the strategic use of evidence, lawyers and criminal investigators can often discover if a suspect is lying. Here’s how it works.

During interrogation the investigator asks the suspect a general question. If the suspect replies with a fuzzy answer that contradicts what the investigators already know to be true, then the suspect is probably lying.

However, if the suspect shares details that match what the investigator already knows, then the suspect is probably telling the truth. The specificity of his answer builds credibility.

The moral of the story is to be ultra-specific in your headlines, testimonials, stories, offers. Add facts, research, quotes, and numbers. Be clear and concise. If there are vague or estimated numbers, you’ll look suspect or like you’re fudging.

Steer clear of ambiguity. And if you are curious about situations where specificity might get you in trouble, read this article by Chris Garrett.

Part of this article originally appeared in this Salesforce article (which I am told by a source close to the company is their most socially popular post). 

Gimpy Web Copy? Use This 4-Step Formula to Make It Killer

Donut Messs

Do you want a simple, sticky formula that turns your listless copy into something that rivets attention, stokes desire, and gets action?

If you said “yes,” then the 4 Ps is what you are after. Let’s start with an example.

Here’s a short ad promoting a fantasy

Wanted: Ugly Men
Listen, ugly men, with one little pill, I can make you so attractive that women will throw themselves at you every time you walk through the mall.

Want proof?

Just ask Marty Feldman or Michael Berryman. They now beat women off of them with sticks.

Call 1-800-ugly-men now if you are interested.

See any pattern in the above copy? I’m using the Ps. So, what are the 4 Ps?

  • Promise
  • Paint
  • Proof
  • Push

Let’s break this little ad down so I can show you how this formula works.

The promise to ugly men

Listen, ugly men, with one little pill I can make you so attractive.

In two words I’ve identified my audience, and in six words I gave them a promise that will most certainly appeal to them: easy beauty.

The trick to writing a good promise is to identify a customer’s pain point and how your product can solve that problem. That’s the benefit and the essence of your promise.

Wondering how you find out a customer’s pain point? Try this:

  • Ask them. Hit the street or the phones and start asking your target audience what keeps them up at night, their worst fears.
  • Take a survey. Google Forms or Survey Monkey are decent and free tools. If you are using WordPress, try Gravity Forms (that’s what I used for the native advertising and online business surveys).
  • Research. Lots of companies like Forresters, eMarketer and Neilson have reports that you can mine for information.

Once you have the promise nailed, you’re next step is to paint a picture that shows them what they’re life will be like when they take you up on your promise.

Paint the picture of a better version of themselves

…that women will throw themselves at you every time you walk through the mall.

Heck, most half-way decent looking guys wouldn’t mind if more women threw themselves at their feet when they walked through the mall. Someone who’s ugly? He’s desperate and can relate.

He’s a thirsty crowd and should be ready to fall in your lap. But not just yet, because a claim by itself isn’t convincing. People are skeptical. They want evidence. So now you have to provide proof.

Prove you can deliver on that promised picture

Just ask Marty Feldman or Michael Berryman. They now beat women off of them with sticks.

Two high-profile, and sadly, ugly men have hypothetically taken this pill and are now living with the pleasant consequences.

In other words, if you don’t listen to me … listen to these guys … objective third-party sources who’s lives have been changed just as the ad promised.

Keep in mind that whatever you promise you MUST deliver. No ifs, ands, or buts. And if you over promise, you will probably lose prospects.

Speaking of credibility and believability, always tell the truth, even if it’s ugly. (No pun intended.)

Okay, now that you’ve whipped your prospect into a lather, what’s your next step? Now you’ve got to get them to act.

Push your prospect to act

Call 1-800-ugly-men now if you are interested.

That’s your call to action. It doesn’t get any easier.

Listen, not asking for the order in a clear and compelling way is the best way to cripple your conversion rates. You have to tell your prospect what to do. You’ve won him over. He’s yours. Now tell him what to do. And make it clear and concise.

Pay attention to this part

Can you tell me anything about the pill?

  • What does it look like?
  • Smell like?
  • How many do you have to take?
  • Is it the size of a man’s thumb or a mircrochip?
  • And how does it actually make an ugly man pretty?

You don’t know very much about the pill, do you? The only feature I’ve shared was that it was little.

Here’s why …

Your prospect doesn’t care at this point. He just wants to know how he can solve his problem and turn his life around. He’ll worry about the actual pill once he’s ordered.

His emotions will convince him to buy. His questions about the features will justify that purchase. But the answer to those questions come second, not first.

P.S. Have you seen my new podcast: Rough Draft?

Original article appeared here.

Introducing My New Podcast: Rough Draft

RM-Podcast-Cover-12

And then there was the podcast: Rough Draft.

Essential writing advice you need to succeed online, in about four minutes a day, four days a week.

It’s a sequential show. A journey. I start from the very beginning and work through principles and practices of writing for the web. Tomfoolery included. With the occasional semi-robotic surprise guest host.

If you’re a pure writer, and you wonder how you’ll be able to build your own online platform that actually gets seen, this show is your shortcut.

Subscribe to Rough Draft on iTunes

While you are at it, check out some of the other shows in the Copyblogger podcast network: RainmakerFM.

I’m particularly fond of Sonia Simone’s show art (Confessions of a Pink Haired Marketer). Intrigued by the angle on editing Stefanie Flaxman takes in her show (Editor-in-Chief). And smitten by the name of Loren Baker’s podcast on SEO (Search and Deploy).

And not to mention the next four episodes of The Lede (with Jerod and I) are going to be good. Like so good the world will end, children will forget their names, and birds will bring us food.

Come, join us.

How to Be More Successful When You Ask a Favor

Big Belt Buckle

While Enlightenment-era thinkers would like you to believe otherwise, we are not as rational as we think we are.

Books like Irrational Exuberance, Emotional Intelligence, and Descartes’ Error teach us that even the most analytical among us make decisions with emotions. Furthermore, we learn that without emotions we can’t make a decision in the first place.

In the sales context, this means people buy based on desire.

Whether someone wants a promotion at work or a healthier lifestyle, they desire these things for emotional reasons like prestige, approval, sex appeal, or security.

However, those desire-based decisions are eventually justified with logic. That’s where “reason why” advertising comes in.

In essence, if you make an offer, state a claim, or ask a favor, expect your prospect to wonder why you are making that claim. Satisfy her curiosity. Sweep away her skepticism. Kill the troll.

For example, explain why you are giving away a free sample of your book (because you know the advice in the first chapter will help them survive Manhattan traffic that very night).

Explain why you are throwing in a free 30-minute consultation with every contract (because this helps clients warm up to your strange coaching process).

Elizabeth Langer’s famous 1977 Copy Machine Study demonstrates we don’t need much. Your reason why could be as simple as “I’m just a generous person” or “because.”

Whatever it is, make it clear. Otherwise people will wonder if there’s a catch and remain skeptical.

Image source: Gratisography

This piece originally appeared as part of this Salesforce article (which I am told by a source close to the company is their most socially popular post). 

Want to Sweep Away Skepticism? Demonstrate Your Product

Elevator Sign

The first mention of an elevator is thought to be around 236 A.D. It was nearly seventeen hundred years later before the first working models were actually installed (in English and French palaces, no less).

There was just one problem. If the lift cable broke, the cab dropped – wounding or killing everyone inside.

In 1852, Elisha Otis hoped to save lives (and make money) by introducing his safety elevator. And he did it with a very dramatic demonstration. In front of a crowd of onlookers at the Crystal Palace in 1853, Otis raised his safety elevator three stories high, and then cut the cable – while he was still inside.

Everyone gasped.

But instead of plunging into the ground below, the elevator stopped when knurled rollers engaged. Otis was shaken up, but unhurt. As you can imagine, orders came in hot and heavy.

Otis’ demonstration proves an important principle about belief: If you want people to believe in the hard to believe, then simply demonstrate what your product does.

The blender company Blendtec’s attention-getting “Will It Blend?” YouTube videos are examples of dramatic demonstrations. To dismiss any skepticism about their claim that their blenders could grind anything and still remain sharp, Blendtec blended iPhones, hearing aids, rakes, and so on.

Views of the videos blew through the roof – as did sales.

Of course car salespeople rely heavily on this principle. Instead of wasting hours talking about a car they simply hand the keys over.

You must do the same. Find a way to demonstrate your product. Whether it is software or a service. You’ll have to be creative. And don’t forget: the more dramatic, the better.

Image source: Thomas Hawk

This article originally appeared as part of this Salesforce article (which I am told by a source close to the company is their most socially popular post). 

In a Panic Over a Big Project? Obey This Rule

Alexander 2

Floss just one tooth every day. That’s not a big commitment. But it is what dentists tell people who have trouble remembering (or feel overwhelmed) when it comes to flossing.

Sounds lame, actually.

Flossing isn’t laborious. Pull out a twenty-four inch string of floss. Wrap one end around the index finger of your right hand, the other end around the index finger of your left hand. Work it between your teeth.

I just timed myself and the whole affair took me fifty-two seconds. And I was being particularly lifeless.

We don’t floss because we are lazy. And look for any excuse not to floss. This mindset holds for big projects. Take writing a book, for example.

I’ve got this side project I so want to finish. But, to be realistic, will involve at least a year or two of writing and research. That’s overwhelming. And the project only continues to grow. For every book I read I discover three more I want to read.

Add my mounting responsibilities at Copyblogger and, naturally, there is a logjam. I may go days without touching my side project. Unless I think about it like flossing just one tooth.

Why would a dentist tell patients to floss just one tooth a day? Because she knows once someone goes through the trouble of getting the floss out for one tooth, they are more than likely to floss every tooth. And flossing just one tooth doesn’t seem like a big deal.

So what I’ve committed to is at least 24 minutes every 24 hours. Even if all I do for those 24 minutes is re-read what I wrote the day before. That doesn’t seem nearly as daunting. And usually that’s enough to get me back into the momentum.

By the way, there’s nothing special about 24 minutes except that it mirrors 24 hours. Which makes it handy. Easy to remember. Cute you might say. Like your pearly whites (if, of course, you floss everyday).

What’s your gimmick to trick your mind into doing stuff it hates? Share in the comments.

Image by Alexander Rentsch

Writing Landing Page Copy? Do This

Lamplight

Last Friday I participated in Page Fights: Copy Edition.

Covered a lot of material critiquing ten landing pages in under 40 minutes. And would sum everything I said in this simple statement:

Your landing page copy is nothing more than a conversation with your ideal prospect.”

Your landing page copy is not some random facts about you or your product. It’s a conversation that begins with an understanding of what is in your prospect’s mind.

And you enter that conversation by saying, “Hey, you’re not alone.” The four most powerful words in our language (sans “hey”).

Once you have her attention, then you make her feel like you care. Like you really understand. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That there is hope.

So you paint a picture of what her life will be like if she takes you up on your offer. You show her a better version of herself.

Then you prove you can deliver on your promise. That you are someone she can trust.

Finally, tell her what to do. Push her in the right direction.

Every single word should support and advance that conversation. If it doesn’t, cut it.

By the way, can anyone name the formula I used to frame this conversation? Share your answer in the comments.

Writing Improves Everything (Another Absurd Claim)

Window Wood

You are the hack who butchers your ideas. It’s okay. That’s true for everyone. We butcher our ideas when we commit them to paper or hit publish.

But it must be done.

Otherwise we freeze. And never write. We fear the botched performance. The corruption of sublime ideas once they hit the atmosphere.

Corruption, however, is essential to creation.

See, there are two modes to creation. First, there is the birth of the idea, which happens in your head. Second, you turn that idea into reality (hit publish), which usually confirms your suspicion: the idea wasn’t that great.

But here’s the thing.

Rough drafts will almost never reflect your original idea. A rough draft reflects sloppy thinking. And the older the writer you are the better you understand that principle.

See, rewriting — an arduous taskhelps you to think clearly. So the more you write not only the better writer you become — but the better your thoughts become, too.

In other words, as your writing improves so do your ideas. But that’s not all.

Writing Improves Everything

Over time the opinion of your ideas decreases. Which should encourage you.

Since your ideas are not as great as you think they are the damage done by publishing them is diminished. So, you publish frequently. And frequent publishing forces you to come up with new ideas faster.

Which means more opportunity to stumble across a truly great idea. Just like any numbers game.

Image source: Leon Ephraïm

How to Write a Brilliant Long Sentence

Nepal

Our world is full of useful guidelines on how to write for the web. Sensible, everyday guidelines. But, over time, we morph those guidelines into laws. Unbreakable rules that spoil the fun. Sour the adventure.

Take writing short sentences, for instance.

It’s a useful guideline. Full of benefits. Meant to be inviting. Easy on the eyes. Breezy for the brain. Certainly the short sentence is a boon in this mean, cold world. Where a busy reader is likely to give your humdinger of a headline a once-over, your first line a second glance, then disappear.

Forever.

But the short sentence can become boring. Breathtakingly boring. It can become repetitive. Monotonous. Monotone. Routine. And dry. Which frustrates the reader.

See, there comes a moment in every article or sales letter where all that tension building up behind those cute, compact, and simple sentences (you know, those one-subject, one-verb constructions, with an occasional direct object thrown in if the writer is feeling frisky) must be released.

In fact, there is a secret tradition between you and the reader which says short sentences promise a surprise is on the way. Some goodie. A toy in the cereal box. But tease the reader too long and she checks out.

That’s where the long sentence enters. That sometimes complex and strange construction winding its way through your paragraphs.

It’s like the ground beneath a hiker suddenly gives way and carries her down the mountainside, breathless, until she finds her footing again on the solid path, and plods on, savoring the joy of surviving the near miss.

That’s the power of a good long sentence. Something you can — and should — pull off in the prosaic world of web writing.

But before you run off to pump some long sentences into your prose, there’s something you should know. In the wrong hands long sentences can become dreadful. Or simply weak.

Note …

An abundance of And

Some writers believe longs sentences are  simply made by coupling clauses with the word and. This is called polysyndeton, and yes, it is one of twelve literary devices you can use to take charge of your boring writing. But it’s a cheap way to get a long sentence.

In the right hands, a long sentence coupled with the word and will build in power and pace. The action pushes the plot forward because the writer is pointing the gaze of the reader to something going on in the world. He’s obeying the golden rule of writing.

But in the wrong hands, this trick becomes nothing more than a meaningless connector. You might as well use periods.

Anaphora abuse

This is another literary trick I taught you. In this case, same word starts multiple clauses. This Dave Eggers sentence is a classic example of anaphora:

I fly past the smaller shops, past the men drinking wine on the benches, past the old men playing dominoes, past the restaurants and the Arabs selling clothes and rugs and shoes, past the twins my age, Ahok and Awach Ugieth, two very kind and hardworking girls carrying bundles of kindling on their heads, Hello, Hello, we say, and finally I step into the darkness of my father’s stores, completely out of breath.”

The repeated word is past. And it works because the writer is describing a boy running through an African marketplace. It’s a sentence that mirrors the action of the subject. It is pointing the reader to something happening in the world (in this case, a fictional world).

But too many anaphoras and the copy can become confusing, burdensome. In that case, you might as well use periods.

Endless supply of semicolons

The amateur writer thinks churning out a long list connected with semicolons is the same thing as churning out a brilliant long sentence. Like so:

I was in a surly mood when I woke up so I went to the record store; bought a Wagner album; teased the clerk; downed an iced tea; taunted the vendor who sold it to me; stole cheese from my roommate to make a sandwich; dropped the album on the record player, slid my headphones on, and devoured the sandwich in three bites; three hours later I was in a worse mood.

There is pace. It builds. But this is just the word and in a different gown. Not a sexy long sentence. You might as well use periods.

The parenthetical pain

Usually occurs when the writer has to explain something that happened before (backstory). That’s not a bad thing, mind you. It’s only a bad thing if the backstory is more interesting than the present action. And if that’s the case, then just dispense with the present, and begin in the past.

My two attempts at a long sentence in the opening of this article involve parenthetical statements. Remove those statements and the sentences work just fine. Better, in fact.

The magic of resumptive modifier

This neat trick repeats a word in the second clause that was used in the first. Jesse Hines use this simple sentence as an example:

The restaurant serves excellent sushi, sushi that bursts with flavor.”

The bolded word is repeated, and then its meaning is expanded. Slick, but not much of a long sentence. There is a better way.

Swimming in summative modifiers

These modifiers summarizes something said in the previous statement, usually the main clause. In Rhetorical Style, Jean Fahnestock writes, “The resumptive modifier reaches into a string of terms and pulls out one for the emphasis of repetition.”

For example:

The defensive coaches taught risk-taking, ball-hawking, and perpetual movementthree strategies that bewildered the opposition and resulted in many bad passes, steals, and easy fastbreak baskets.

New information about the three bolded phrases is added in the second clause. And the second clause begins with a reference to those three phrases.

In the introduction I created a summative modifier in my second long sentence. But instead of putting it at the end of the sentence, I stuck it in the middle. That, too, is a no-no.

Let me show you why.

Branch to the right

The simplest and best way to write a long sentence is to state the subject and verb as early as you can in the beginning of the sentence, and simply to branch to the right.

Gasper Hicks stared down at the dead teenager at the foot of his door and realized he knew him; knew him as a boy, from the days when Gasper taught Sunday school, knew him as a blonde, dirt-faced kid desperate for attention, knew him as one of the dozen anxious children they bussed from the trailer park.

In other words, if you keep the subject and the verb together, then you should not confuse the reader, no matter what you pile on afterwards. When you branch to the right, the reader, Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of style, says, “never has to keep a phrase suspended in memory for long while new words pour in. That tree has been shaped to spread the cognitive load over time.”

Read this 2,167 word monster sentence by Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship” and you’ll see what I mean. It works because the action went in one direction and did not depend upon anything in the past.

But I wouldn’t recommend such an approach for web writing. A wee bit excessive.

Fortunately English is a right-branching language, so it should come naturally. But beware. Those parenthetical lame backstories or list of semicolons can slip in. And keep in mind, modifiers at the start of sentence are useful, but keep them short.

Image source: Dorothy Lin

How Safe Is Your Copy from the Curse of Knowledge?

Three Mile Island

At 4:00 a.m. Wednesday, March 28, 1979, plant operators at the Three Mile Island facility set into motion the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history. And it all started with a minor malfunction exacerbated by human error.

Here’s how the Wikipedia entry on Three Mile Island accident describes the human error:

… such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.”

Did you catch that? The operator misinterpreted the label of a warning light. Why? The curse of knowledge.

The failure to communicate

The curse of knowledge is a self-indulgent belief that everybody knows — and should know — what you know. In other words, it’s a failure to imagine people know less about your subject than they actually do.

And often they know a lot less.

For example, the engineer who designed the nuclear reactor control console probably thought it would be obvious what the indicator light meant. Knowing what he knew, he assumed the engineer would know it, too.

What the designer failed to do was estimate the operators knowledge and skill. A simple user test would’ve settled that debate. The designer failed to put himself in the operators shoes and, ultimately, failed to communicate.

“Design is really an act of communication,” Donald A. Norman said in his book The Design of Everyday Things, “which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

Norman goes on to explain how objects have affordance: a visual clue to the function of an object. Good design helps people understand how to use an object. That’s how they communicate.

Norman’s favorite example is a door handle. A flat plate suggests you push the door open. A curved bar suggests you pull the door open. Which leads me to my favorite Gary Larson cartoon.

far_side_school_for_the_gifted

The problem with professional language

As you can imagine the curse of knowledge is alive and kicking in the writing world as well. Exhibit one: the Wiki entry above.

It’s a work of abstraction with a few concrete clues thrown (coolant, operator, water, and reactor). But it’s hazy how these terms work together. The writer didn’t take into account the sophistication of the reader — or rather her lack of sophistication — so failed to communicate.

Here’s an even better example, this time from the summary of Norman’s book on my local library’s website:

Product design that ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology is problem of ambiguous and hidden controls to arbitrary relationships between controls and functions, coupled with a lack of feedback or other assistance and unreasonable demands on memorization.”

What we see here is a writer reveling in her professional language and abstractions. Clearly she’s learned something — and learned it well. What she’s forgot is that other people may not know it. And she forgot to check to see if her readers knew it as well. So, she’s failed to communicate.

Here’s a third example.

A few nights ago I was learning how to play euchre. My mentor, a kind and generous young man, assured me it was easy to play. I guffawed. “Easy for you to say,” I said. Every third sentence I had to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

He was consistently using words like bid, sets, and tricks. I knew what those words meant, but they clearly had a different meaning in this context. He was assuming I was smarter than I was. I was flattered, but confused.

It would’ve been better if he had treated me like I was stupid (that is what you should do with your readers, by the way).

That young man’s behavior highlights another feature of the curse of knowledge. “The better you know something,” said Steven Pinker, “the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.” Naturally, euchre was easy to play for that young man because he’d already mastered it.

Of course, the amount of abstraction you can get away with depends on the sophistication of your audience. But discovering that is no easy task. Best to assume too little than too much.

How to avoid the curse of knowledge

New bloggers, under the assumption that most people already know as much as they know about their subject, are victims of this curse when they skip the basic stuff and crank out advanced content. They then wonder why their audience is so small, so narrow. Only experts who share their parochial mindset can follow their communication.

Avoiding this curse starts with awareness. A recognition that you need to …

  • Banish jargon
  • Explain abbreviations (and use them sparingly)
  • Explain technical terms (copious use of for example, as in, and such as)
  • Commit to the concrete (tangible objects people can imagine through the five senses)
  • Read what you wrote out loud
  • Listen to someone else (at least Ginger) read what you wrote

Ultimately, the antidote to the curse of knowledge is to remember and obey the golden rule of clear writing: treat readers like they are in a conversation with the writer. And then direct her gaze to something in the world.

Do this and you will be communicating clearly. And this starts with understanding your reader.

Image source: Three Mile Island at Work

Sources on the accident at Three Mile Island include PBS, Smithsonian, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Nuclear World Association.