4028353766_1326313519Never ask a barber if you need a haircut

– Cowboy Wisdom as quoted by Warren Buffet

Your website, e-mail, and direct mail copy all suffers from a flaw that kills reader belief.  And there’s no real way to prevent that problem – only workarounds and partial solutions.

It’s the nature of the copywriting beast to suffer the fate of the barber telling people they need a haircut – the vested interest of the speaker works against his believability.

And that’s why stories come in so handy.  While the right story won’t prevent the problem, it will overcome it with a double whammy of psychology capable of crushing this credibility gap like an empty beer can. Here’s why:

1) Flattery works, even when you know the flattery isn’t sincere.

Or so says recent psychological research titled: “Insincere Flattery Actually Works“.  Even though we like to think that we’re too smart to be influenced by insincere flattery, our intellectual understanding of the intent to persuade doesn’t stop the emotional influence of the message.

And the same also extends to a story that flatters the listener.  A story that flatters your prospective customers’ sensibilities, suspicions, judgements, or aspirations will emotionally influence them, even when they recognize your vested interest in telling the story.

This stands in sharp contrast to bragging, which never works regardless of how sincere it might be. So why does most copy brag instead of flatter? In the words of Bryan Eisenberg, why is there so much we-we copy?

While emotional-directed advertising has historically performed twice as well as purely rational ads, the key to making those ads work is to focus on the buyer’s emotion, not the seller’s.

2) We unconsciously “see” things through the eyes of the story’s protagonist

When listening to a story, we understand the narrative by picturing the experience as it occurs to the protagonist.  When we hear a story, we identify with the protagonist, not just visually, but emotionally. That’s why we love happy endings, and why watching an authentic tragedy leaves us feeling devastated and drained.

Put these two psychological principles together with the right kind of story and you’ve got persuasive dynamite.  Here’s a perfect case study demonstrating just how effective this can be:

Beckley Automotive’s 30% Sales Jump

My friend and colleague, Chuck McKay, works with a 15-bay repair shop in Des Moines by the name of Beckley Automotive.  Steve Beckley’s shop works on the European Imports he loves and drives himself: Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover, Mini, Volkswagen, Saab, and Volvo (along with Acura, Lexus, and Infinity).

For years Steve has purchased lists of European Import owners in Des Moines and has used multiple post card mailings to remind owners that someone in town understands all the ins and outs of the cars they drive. Over the years those cards have payed off handsomely.

But the cards suffered from the “barber telling you you need a haircut” problem: it’s just not very credible when anyone brags about how great they are – especially when they’re out to get your business.

So Chuck advised Steve Beckley to do two things with his mailings:

  1. Stop appealing to European Import owners and start appealing to owners of specific brands.  In the words of Chuck: “A Range Rover owner doesn’t think of himself as a ‘European Import Owner.’  He thinks of himself as someone who drives a Range Rover.  Speak directly to him.”  In other words, appeal to emotion& self-identity.
  2. Stop speaking like an advertiser and start communicating more like a good friend.  Start telling stories.

So to Steve’s immense credit, he took that advice, ditched his old copy, and wrote awesomely effective stories for each of the European marques he works on.  Stories like this one he sent to Mercedes owners:

Beckley Imports

Wouldn’t You Feel Smug?

Can you just imagine how self-satisfied you’d feel upon reading this story if you owned and drove a Mercedes Benz? You might just feel downright smug after reading that story.  And even though you’d know, in the back of your mind somewhere, that Beckley Automotive was trying to flatter you with that story, it wouldn’t matter: you’d still walk away a heck of lot more likely to call them for your auto work.

Indeed, that was exactly the case for recipients of these story-based postcard mailers, whose increased patronage of Beckley Automotive led to a 29.9% increase in sales this March over March of last year.

And that’s the power of smug.

It’s also a great way to sell a man a haircut when all the world can see that you’re a barber.

P.S. Chuck McKay does a lot more than advise clients on messaging and copy.  He’s also a superb Business and Marketing Strategist who manages to combine those rare-enough-on-their-own traits of clear thinking, small business savvy, and creative execution.  If you’re looking to grow in spite of the current economic climate, do yourself a favor – check out Chuck’s blog and drop him a message.


  1. Ken Brand on 04.19.2010

    Awesomely insightful. Thanks Jeff.

  2. Bruce Alles on 04.20.2010

    Very good! I sent it to my group.

  3. Caroline Barry on 04.20.2010

    Thanks for sharing this with us last week Jeff! You really got us thinking.