If you’ve ever had someone totally miss-read a blog post and walk away thinking the opposite of your intended message, chances are you forgot what an odd duck you are.
As a writer, chances are that you’re more at ease with the idea of creating meaning through interpretation of events, and of critically examining a narrative for multiple meanings, contradictions, open endings, shades of grey, nuances, etc. And you likely bring those same skills to bear on everything you read.
Most People Don’t Read The Same Way You Read
That level of analysis may be second nature for you, but it’s a lot of unpleasant work for most people, who generally don’t think to put that effort into 99% of what they read. When you forget that, you write something that’s bound to be misunderstood.
So here’s what to do about it…
The Straightforward Grammar of Business Stories
In order to tailor your writing to a general audience and to avoid miscommunication, you’ll want to intentionally structure your story the way most readers think about and remember stories. The message can be unexpected, but the narrative structure used to deliver it shouldn’t be.
And when it comes to business stories or parables, most non-writers think in terms of three nodes:
- Villain/Obstacle, and
- Turning Point/Triumph.
Complex, rich, satisfying stories may contain more moving parts, but business parables shouldn’t. If you’re telling an anecdote or fable to make a point, you’ll want to keep the narrative structure simple. Who’s the hero? What’s he want? And who the hell is getting in his way?
If your main point or general story structure doesn’t fit neatly within this structure, people will misremember or warp your story in order to fit the framework, often to the point of changing your intended meaning.
The Unwritten Expectations For Each Storytelling Node
In addition to simplifying your story to those three nodes, make sure you tell the story in such a way as to meet audience expectations for each of the nodes:
- Regardless of what writing instructors and English teachers may have taught you, in a business story the hero should always be the guy you talk about the most in the telling of the story. If you talk too much about someone other than the hero, you’ll likely confuse your audience.
- The villain should be, well, villainous, even if the villain is just an obstacle. Make sure your audience can see the dastardly pain and gnashing of teeth your villain/obstacle causes.
- Dramatize the turning point for the hero. Don’t be subtle about it; novelist can paper over a momentous decision or a-ha moment for literary effect, but a business parable can’t afford that kind of subtlety. And make sure the victory follows immediately after the decision point. Most importantly, whatever point you’re trying to convey had better be made and “proved” during the turning point and victory.
- Remember that everything in the story will either get lumped in with the hero or the villain – they (or it) will inevitably be remembered as either helping the hero achieve victory or working against the hero, with no room for neutral or conflicted parties, characters, or elements.
If you complicate the structure, or bury your point outside of that framework, or confuse people by talking too long about someone other than the hero, the reader will likely walk away thinking something totally different than your intended point.
Here’s a textbook example of what can go wrong:
What Happens When You Violate the Structure
Roy Williams used a Monday Morning Memo as a sort of character sketch, contrasting the difference between faith in, well, providence, in the largest sense of that word, and a blind slavery to “the sure thing.”
Specifically, he wrote about how Joe Weppner’s underdog bout against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title inspired Stallone to write the script for Rocky. And, more importantly, he wrote about the incredible faith it took for Stallone to turn down a Studio’s offer of $400,000 for the script alone in favor of $25,000 and the chance to play the part of Rocky.
But Roy spent most of the Memo setting the stage by talking about Weppner and his singular chance at beating the odds. Not until the last few paragraphs does Roy introduce Sylvester Stallone and his gutsy move to turn down the “sure bet” of $400K for the chance to play the part of Rocky.
So when Roy closes his Memo by contrasting Weppner’s short-sighted slavery to “the sure thing” – about how Weppner took a $70,000 flat fee instead of a 1% cut of the movie’s gross that turned out to be worth $8 million – to Stallone’s faith, well, most readers missed the point of the memo.
How do I know? Because Roy’s MMM from two weeks after that opens with:
I recently wrote a Monday Morning Memo… about how Chuck Wepner’s fight against Muhammad Ali provided the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone to peck out the screenplay of Rocky, a low-budget film that, against all odds, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 1976. As expected, I was flooded with emails from people sharing stories of friends and family who “like Wepner” valiantly did their best in the face of insurmountable odds.
Funny thing is, that wasn’t the point of the memo…
Roy’s Story Structure Violated the Grammar of Business Parables
Weppner was the main character in the story, and yet Weppner was neither the hero nor the villain. Sylvester/Rocky was the hero. Daunting odds and the temptation of the “sure thing” was the obstacle.
So where does that leave Weppner? That leaves Weppner to either be confused with or associated with the Hero, or to be lumped in with the Obstacle/villain. Business parables leave no room for a complicated and conflicted third character.
So even though Weppner was both the inspiration for Rocky AND the guy who gave into the temptation of the sure thing, his image as the real-life inspiration for Rocky was what people took away from the Memo — even though that was the opposite of the intended point.
Fix Your Stories by Sticking to The 3-Node Structure
Do this by ensuring that:
- The Hero is clearly the hero. Make sure he gets the most description and “time in front of the camera.” If Roy had set-up with the image of Stallone refusing to sell-out his dream rather than presenting the image of Weppner as a gutsy and dogged fighter, they’d likely have been a lot less confusion.
- The Villain or Obstacle is presented “onscreen.” If your villain isn’t tangible, the reader will likely substitute a tangible villain for the one you intended. In Roy’s MMM the villain/obstacle was the temptation to sell-out to the sure thing. But selling out isn’t easily visualized and there was no Mephistophelean villain to embody selling out. So most reader’s likely substituted “the system” as the villain, with the system acting as the embodiment of conventional wisdom and “the odds.” The system may not be visual, but everyone’s been beaten down by it at one point or another, and everyone knows what it’s like to long for a magical moment of beating the odds. So readers paired Wepner the boxer and Stallone the actor in their battles to beat the system/odds.
- Turning Point & Victory: While the victory for Stallone immediately followed on his turning down the $400K, there really isn’t as much of an emotional turning point for Weppner. He lost out on $8 Million, but we have no idea how badly he did or didn’t need the money. Or how much he did or did not like being a liquor wholesaler in Bayonne, LA.
I’m not suggesting that you “talk down” to your audience or that you only tell simplistic stories. I am suggesting that you become aware of this framework so that the business or copywriting stories you tell end up making the point you hope them to make.
As a fellow Wizard of Ads partner, I had the good fortune of seeing him develop the material for this book over the last few years and of strong-arming him into an interview on his incredibly original approach to Signaling Theory and marketing.
The transcribed Question and Answers are below:
Q: First, let me say how much I love the 6 Currencies framework for thinking about credibility builders. And in thinking about your framework, it occurred to me that the indispensable element in all the currencies – the common thread – is the idea of vulnerability. You’re credibility is directly tied to how vulnerable you make yourself by your willingness to place one or more of those 6 currencies on the line.
Have I gone off on the deep end here, or is vulnerability really the key element behind the currencies – the idea that you have to make yourself vulnerable before a cynical audience will take you seriously?
TOM: [Laughs] No, you haven’t skipped off the deep end just yet.
Vulnerability is certainly another way to look at it. In the book, I discuss resources that you can risk or spend to purchase credibility. And obviously vulnerability is an inherent part of risk.
Jeff, you’ll also appreciate that my inspiration for the six currencies comes from Signaling Theory – which observes how animals communicate using bizarre behaviors and physical traits. Biologists commonly refer to the “cost” of sending a particular signal. And in many cases, this requires that animals place themselves in vulnerable situations.
Q: Would you draw a parallel between this and a post by Michele Miller on Marketing to Women? Michele said that although women WANT connection, the way to allow connection to develop is to PROVIDE women with control. In other words, give her control by making yourself VULNERABLE to her, and then she’ll form a CONNECTION. Do you see that message as being parallel to Currencies that Buy Credibility?
TOM: Yes, Michele is recommending that business owners invest the currency of Power and Control. And her recommendation is spot on.
It seems that most business owners want to control the customer relationship. But this controlling behavior breeds the habitual corporate-speak of hype and chest-thumping clichés that consumers have come to loathe and reject.
In the book, I provide two case studies that demonstrate how companies boost their credibility and authenticity by investing Power and Control into their customer relationships.
Q: Although everything in marketing is astonishingly context dependent, if I admit that going into this, can I ask you a non-contextual question? What currencies seem to work better than others? When it comes down to brass tacks and you’re employing these strategies on behalf of your clients, are there some techniques or currencies that are your “go to” stuff? Or do you use them all about the same?
TOM: Generally speaking, the more you risk, the more believable your message becomes.
But as you know, consumers do not make decisions in isolation. Rather, they compare the differences between their available options.
For these principles to truly work, your credibility investment must reinforce your message. And you won’t be able to purchase credibility unless you stay true to yourself. In other words, if your business can’t support what you’re signaling, then don’t send that particular signal. Redirect your resources.
Q: Are there some currencies that are over-used? Are there some that are under-used? If so, might there be an advantage to “cornering” the market on their use?
TOM: No, I believe all currencies are underused.
That said, we do see material wealth invested most frequently in the form of warranties and guarantees, but this does not mean the other currencies are any less effective. Again, context is everything.
Thanks so much, Tom. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book.
It’s not that plumbing is hard or even all that unpleasant, really. And that’s the infuriating part: the fact that plumbing would be — should be!?! — downright easy if you just didn’t have to:
- negotiate way-too-tight spaces,
- avoid smacking your hand against hot-enough-to-burn-you stuff,
- overcome rusted bolts,
- make yet another trip to the store to get a needed part, tool, etc.
- deal with the worry of making a costly mistake
Honestly, what kind of shade tree mechanic or home fixer-guy hasn’t bitched about one of these things? It’s the luxury of being a shade-tree mechanic or home-fixer guy.
But real professionals don’t have that luxury.
True pros know conditions are never ideal. And they know their reputations and paychecks rest on results achieved in far-from-ideal conditions.
Real plumbers expect to fix plumbing problems while on their backs, staring up at the underside of a cabinet, and working with rusted bolts. That’s how it is in the real world, and so they train for it. Because no one pays you to be an imaginary plumber in a make believe world where the pipes are all out in plain site.
I half-wanted to draw out the analogy between this and copywriting, advertising, and marketing, but I won’t insult your intelligence. Just let me ask you:
Are you a real professional at your chosen vocation?
Do you train yourself to handle far-from-ideal conditions and situations?
Or are you too busy dreaming of the perfect client/product/competitive market and bitching about the marketing equivalents of rusted bolts and tight spaces?
Want to have those same visitors actively searching for just enough substantiation to hang their hats on before rushing off to your shopping cart/checkout process?
Of course you would. Once your reader wants what you say to be true, once she hopes you’re “for real,” she’ll be routing for you the whole time she’s reading your substantiating copy/proof. And that’s the kind of audience you want.
So even before you think about how to prove your claims, establish credibility, or anything else, you’ll want to focus on establishing your readers’ emotional desire. Here’s how to do that…
A Seductive First Mental Image
“The core of a successful trick is an interesting and beautiful idea that taps into something that you would like to have happen. One of the things we do in our live show is I squeeze handfuls of water and they turn into cascades of money. That’s an interesting and beautiful idea.
The deception is really secondary. The idea is first, because the idea needs to capture your imagination.”
- Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) describing the neuroscience of magic
While all copy shares the challenge of capturing readers attention, the best headlines and openers move past gimmicks and shouting in order to intrigue and seduce readers with a mental image that the reader hopes to be true. Or wishes to make true.
Infomercials mastered this technique decades ago. They always open with a striking image or clip functioning as a seductive “proof of concept”:
- The Ginsu knife that cut through the tin can and could still finely slice the tomato
- The OxyClean that magically evaporate stains out of a white carpet
- The ShamWow leaving not a trace of water on the counter and soaking up 20 times its weight in water, every last drop in the tray
Only after the image captures the viewer’s imagination does the pitchman reveal the “secret” of how the product works.
Similarly, Lifelock.com first captures visitor’s imagination with the CEO brazenly publishing his SSN on the homepage. It’s only on the second or third page that visitors learn HOW LifeLock works to keep your identity safe.
And for many Web 2.0 sites, the opening page has become home to the quick 1–3 minute video showing you how easily you too can kick butt with their software/product. This screenr homepage video is a perfect example of that.
Why it Works
As it turns out, we’re really good at bending logic to suport out desires, because, really, does anyone really read Playboy “for the articles?” Our minds also suffer from anchoring bias and the effects of emotional priming.
Basically, an emotional image affects how we “see” or interpret the rest of the copy. Here’s an example: when test subjects were shown a video of a car accident, half of the test subjects were asked how fast the two cars were going when the “crashed” into each other, and half were asked how fast the cars were going when they “made contact.” On average, the “crashed into” group’s estimated speed was 10 mph faster than the “made contact” group. That simple phrase colored the entire memory of the film clip.
In a similar manner, your readers’ desire for a product can color their perception of your substantiating content. In other words, if you present a striking and seductive enough image, your readers will actually look to convince themselves with whatever logical proof you provide.
And isn’t that the way you want it?
And this happens with items we’d likely have said we were “almost” ready to buy!
Isn’t it amazing how long most of us can want something that’s well within our financial reach before we actually pull the trigger and buy it?
Well, your Website visitors are doing the same thing! Especially for items or services that cost over, let’s say, $50.
And that ain’t good. Here are the problems with this situation:
- eventually, the buyer will forget about your product or service in order to focus on a new want
- “almost convinced” visitors don’t increase your conversion rate or put money in your pocket
- those customer just might buy from someone else — someone who could convince them to pull the trigger
If you want to increase your conversion rate, you have to help those buyers overcome their procrastination. And this Dumb Little Man article can help you do that. The article tells you how to beat your own procrastination, but the principles apply to copywriting as well:
1) Eliminate Fear
Buyers don’t procrastinate out of laziness. If they’re procrastinating, they’re usually afraid of parting with their hard earned cash and not receiving full value for their money. Re-check your copy to ensure that you:
- Have material that preemptively answers buyer questions and concerns
- Use risk reversals, or at the very least a guarantee
- Employ user reviews, or at least have authentic sounding testimonials
- Provide adequate substantiation and proof for your claims
- Demonstrate that your product delivers benefits despite normal human frailties
- Reveal your company to be solid, reputable, and trustworthy on your About Us page
2) Cultivate Desire
“…start with the end in mind. How will things look when they’re all done? What will you see and how will you feel?
If you can associate strong emotions with the end result, you can cultivate a burning desire.”
Steve Martile wrote this about personal procrastination, but simply switch the “you” to “your reader,” and you can easily apply this to copywriting.
- Are you acting as the movie director of your readers’ dreams?
- Are you helping them see how much your product or service will allow them to kick butt, both immediately after purchase and long-term?
- Does your copy cultivate desire?
It’s not uncommon to find copy that does one or the other well — either cultivating desire or eliminating fear. But copy that does both is much harder to find, which is why those companies and Websites that do manage to do both enjoy a competitive advantage.
Hyper-targeting isn’t new. Neither is intrusive media.
But a combination of the two… could be incredibly effective. Just imagine if FaceBook had ads like this Apple Skyscraper/Banner ad:
Watch the fully animated ad over at The Unofficial Apple Weblog — it’s quite obviously an intrusive ad (in a good way).
For those unfamiliar with the term, intrusive basically equals sound: radio or television, and, to a degree, animated banner ads. It’s intrusive because you can’t close your ears and the ads interrupt something else that you are doing, like listening to music or watching TV or reading the online version of the NYT.
Yet when it comes to radio and television, selecting the show or station is as targeted as it gets. That’s why they call it mass media and broadcasting. Direct mail, on the other hand, can be targeted by gender, age, income, buying activities, interests, profession, etc — yet still manages to get dumped in the trash unopened and un-looked at a shocking percentage of the time.
Which brings us back to the target-ability of Facebook ads. Want to only show your ads to mothers of 3 kids between the ages of 32–38 who live on the west side of Newport, RI? No sweat. Want to make sure those same mothers of three actually LOOK at your ad? Houston we have a problem.
As of now, FaceBook ads are mostly static and entirely without sound. There also kind of, um, spammy. Without motion or sound to attract members’ attention, most ads end up looking like the example to the left.
But banner ads/online space ads don’t have to be that way, as the recent Apple ad proves. Nor does FaceBook have to give up editorial control on what kind of ads get run. Just like many fashion magazines already do, FaceBook could require ads to meet a certain non-annoying or cool threshold.
Flash driven ads with sound that had a high creative threshold could prove to be the best of both worlds. You’d get targeted ads that are also intrusive enough to seduce FaceBook viewers away from their newsfeeds long enough to watch and click through.
What do you think?