Six Writing Secrets You’re Born Knowing
Updated: Aug 4
Guest post by John Forde, Copywriter’s Roundtable
On my way to the AWAI Copywriting Bootcamp recently, I thought back on just HOW MANY things we’ve covered from that stage. One of the many things my frequent co-presenter, the great Jen Stevens, and I revealed are six “natural born” copywriting secrets.
“Natural born” because, far as we could tell, these are the kinds of things you don’t really need to learn… because you know them from birth. What kinds of things?
Well, it starts by simply acknowledging to yourself that persuading somebody in print, in video, in real life… is often just about having a keener understanding of what makes humans tick.
People are complicated, of course. But we picked these six because seemed to get to the core of what a lot of what we — and you — do when writing copy.
Without further ado, here’s the rundown…
1) “THE SPARKING MATCH”
At the start the movie The Usual Suspects, Gabriel Byrne’s character touches a cigarette to a book of matches. They spark then flame across. He drops them onto a line of gunpowder and the flames race across a burning shipyard dock.
The “natural born” insight? We’re programmed to use little details to help us sort out what’s going on. Which is why using them to tell big stories can help make those stories feel present and real.
In copy, we call them “actualities.” And using them judiciously has an added bonus: they can also help fix other copy problems automatically. How so? It turns out that, to pick the most compelling details, you also have to think more clearly about the message you want to convey.
2) USE YOUR “SANTOKU”
A Japanese “santoku” knife — you can buy one at any kitchen store — does three things well: It chops, dices, and minces. Imagine if you had a mental santoku you could use to chop, dice, and mince your copywriting projects down to a more manageable size.
We know this instinctively, when we tackle all kinds of other projects one thing at a time. The secret many writers don’t reveal is that they often write in small pieces too, rather than in a linear way.
3) THE RIVER OF RELEVANCE
While details have value, you still need to make sure it’s only the emotionally relevant details you use.
What’s “emotional relevance?”
It’s the way your prospect needs to feel to be open to your message. For babies, it’s pretty obvious that feelings trump logic. But the truth is, that natural directive never really goes away.
It’s how we select what we’ll listen to and what we’ll ignore. That’s why your sales copy has to take those relevant emotions into consideration too.
Don’t seek to MAKE a prospect feel. Look for — and return to — those details, metaphors, and stories that connect to emotions your reader is already likely to have.
4) SLAY THE BLOATED MONSTER
William Zinsser warns about “bloated monsters that lie in ambush for the writer trying to put together a clean English sentence.”
Time is the resource we cannot buy. It’s a lot to ask someone to spend that precious time on something that’s boring or confusing, no matter how good the prize that awaits.
In writing, that’s just as true. Which is why good writing is well edited writing. Clarity, it’s worth remembering, is no accident.
5) THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE
In the book, Made to Stick, the authors relate how tough it is to sympathize with someone who doesn’t know what you know. Yet for copywriters, conveying something new — without talking over people’s heads or in a condescending way — is an especially essential skill.
How aware are readers of our product, promise, or even the problem we’re trying to solve? It can vary. But where those gaps in knowledge exist, they cause pain. Filling those gaps — or promising to fill them — is how you win over your prospect’s attention.
6) THE MYTH OF NATURAL TALENT
How many times have you looked back on something you’ve done, only to wish now you’d done it differently? This is often just evidence of how far you’ve come, because your eyes are more open to what works and what doesn’t.
It’s true that some people are born smarter than others. It’s true some are born into better circumstances with better resources. But making the most of those brains and opportunities matters far more. What usually makes the difference? Time spent polishing your craft. It’s that simple.
BONUS SECRET: THE FULL MONTY!
“Do not to others what ye do not wish done to yourself,” said the Hindus. For Confucius, it was almost the same. So too for the Ancient Babylonians, who said “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”
You’ll find it in the Hadith, the Tibetan Dhammapada, the Talmud, and the Bible too.
It is of course what you might know as The Golden Rule. And it doesn’t matter what religion you do or don’t practice, because we know this from birth too. In short, life works better if you do as right by others as you would them to do unto you. Period.
That’s just as true in salesmanship. What’s the secret to a brilliant copywriting career? Sell good products that you’d be happy to have yourself.
It’s that simple.
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